Saturday, June 4, 2016

Frederic Leighton

The memory of Frederic Leighton (1830-1896) is dominated by this one famous image, Flaming June, painted at the end of his life in 1895.

To judge from this, Leighton ought to have been one of those painters whose career was a series of torrid affairs with various beautiful models.

But actually there isn't much evidence that Leighton was anything like that. He was a lifetime bachelor, one of those vigorous Victorian man's men who preferred his all male clubs to female company. There were rumors that he had an illegitimate child with one of his models, but no proof has ever been found and it remains a rumor. (Self Portrait of 1880)

Among men Leighton was a great networker who knew just about everyone, from Ingres and Corot to Robert Browning to William Gladstone. When the artists of southern England formed a militia company in 1860, Leighton was elected their Captain, and thereafter it was an artists' in-joke to refer to him as "The Colonel." These days of course it is common to speculate that he was gay, and his intense friendships with men are adduced as evidence. But that was just how some Victorian men were, and surely if there had even been a rumor of such scandal around Leighton he would never have been the first British artist elevated to the peerage. This is the famous 1875 portrait of Sir Richard Francis Burton, the great Victorian explorer and linguist, now in the National Portrait Gallery in London; Burton was of course another one of Leighton's friends.

Leighton was born into a wealthy merchant family in Scarborough and attended the University College school in London. From his teenage years he was determined to be a painter, and as soon as he left school he traveled to the continent to study with painters in Paris and Florence. It was at Florence, in 1853 to 1855, that he painted his first famous work, Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna is carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence.

Details. This is very much in the style of the high Renaissance, and some of the heads might have been copied from similar scenes by Botticelli, but I love it; I mean, if you're going to copy something, the art of Renaissance Florence seems to me like a good way to go.

A Roman man, c. 1855.

Back in England, Leighton was elected to the Royal Academy in 1864, and of course he eventually became its president. (The Painter's Honeymoon, 1864)

Perseus and Andromeda, 1891.

Phoebe, 1890s. The model is Dorothy Dene, an actress who also modeled for Flaming June.

A great favorite of the establishment, Leighton was knighted in 1878 and created Baron Leighton of Stretton on 24 January 1896. He dropped dead of a heart attack the next day, and the peerage was immediately revoked, making it the shortest-lived noble title in British history. The Tragic Poetess, 1890.

Solitude, 1890s. Cropped a little. I have learned to appreciate many sorts of art, but nineteenth-century academic painting remains closest to my heart.

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