Lord Frederic Leighton was a prominent figure in the art world of the Victorian Era. Painter and sculptor, his oeuvre was marked by virtuosic technique and a stellar approach to Neo-Classical aesthetics and tropes. As such, his themes usually dealt with Biblical narratives, historical painting, and mythological allegories. Leighton was very popular and celebrated throughout his life, but since the rise of Modernist painting, he faded into the background in a considerable part of the 20th century. As a sculptor, Frederic Leighton was praised for his figures' vivacity and dynamic aspects, giving them a naturalist aspect that inspired many artists at his time. The idyllic mood of his pictures went on to inspire the Pre-Raphaelites.
Lord Frederic Leighton was born in December 1830, in Scarborough, North Riding of Yorkshire. Along with him lived Augusta Susan, his mother, Dr. Frederic Septimus Leighton, his father, and his two sisters. One of his sisters was Alexandra, who appears in Frederic's portraits and became known as the biographer of Robert Browning.
Sir James Leighton, Frederic's grandfather, worked as the court physician of Russian Emperor Nicholas. His father was about to maintain the same job as the Russian Empire, but his mother couldn't stand the weather in St. Petersburg. When the Leighton boy was ten, his mother, Susan, was once again feeling sick and received a medical recommendation of drier climates. They traveled through Germany, Italy, and Switzerland, living six years in continental Europe.
When the Leighton family was living in Rome, it was a period in which Frederic took a deep interest in drawing. He filled many sketchbooks with architecture and daily life scenes. While there, the boy started his first formal instruction with art, having drawing lessons from an old local artist. His father, Frederic, wasn't too fond of the idea of his son becoming an artist, so he also gave him classes on foreign languages and taught him human anatomy, hoping this would spark his interest in becoming a doctor as well.
The classes that Frederic Sr. gave to him were very strict. Leighton was familiarized with the name of muscles and bones' structure, having to exercise his knowledge through memory drawings of his lessons. The naturalism in his work as a sculptor indeed has its debt on classes he had as a child. His studies on classical culture, for sure, were the inspiration for his narrative motifs.
Their family finally returned to England in 1841. Leighton began his studies at University College School and dedicated himself to study art under Giovanni Costa. The next years were spent in Germany, where Frederic Sr. thought would be the best place for his offspring's education. Meanwhile, Leighton was studying under tutors.
At the age of 14, Leighton studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence under painter Giuseppe Bezzuoli. His father no longer denied his son's passion for art and decided to give in to his will. They eventually came back for Germany, wherein Frankfurt he studied under Edward von Steinle, a Nazarene painter. Later in his life, he spoke dearly of Steinle and revered his respectful and spiritual-like attitude towards art.
By 1848, the young man was attending model classes in Frankfurt while studying in complementary courses and completed his first oil painting during this year. During the following months, he lived in Belgium, Paris, and then came back to Frankfurt. At the beginning of the 1850s, he was taking commissions from friends and relatives. His first accomplished artworks were dated to these years, such as The Death of Brunelleschi, painted in 1852.
While still in the process of understanding his artistic call, he kept working as an assistant to Steinle. His master soon recognized that the painter was greatly influenced by Italian painting. From his subject choices to the idealized representation of the bodies and the warm palette, Steinle could see the almost nostalgic references to Classical culture. He suggested that Leighton should visit Rome, where his sensibilities would be valued and developed.
One can easily infer that this "Italianized" manner is no coincidence. In fact, through the artist's large amount of correspondence with his close ones, it's possible to access his aesthetic views. It might sound outdated for the present time and for Modernist sensibilities, which explains why he became unpopular after passing away, but Frederic Leighton championed the concept of Beauty. For him, Beauty - as he stated through correspondence - was the primary aim of art. For someone with his Classical education, this notion of Beauty had Greek origins and strived for harmony and idealized human figures.
Frederic arrived in Rome in 1852 with his firm aesthetic ideals. In the city, he found other artists working under similar convictions, like Johann Friedrich Overbeck, George Hemming Mason, and Giovanni Costa, his former teacher. In this new cultural environment, the student truly became a painter, where his skills flourished and were nurtured.
Leighton's first significant work entitled Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna was extremely successful. The 222 cm × 521 cm canvas, an impressive size, had many preparatory drawings and even an oil sketch. The result is a complex composition and shows the young painter's profound interest in Renaissance imagery: it is based on Giorgio Vasari's description of an altarpiece done by Cimabue for the Santa Maria Novella church. Other than Cimabue, Giotto, Dante Alighieri, and other artists were also depicted in the scene. The piece participated in the yearly show held by the Royal Academy of London in 1855. It was bought on the first day of the event by Queen Victoria, who compared it to the works of Paolo Veronese.
Still in 1855, the artist decided to move again, this time to Paris. There he was fortunate to meet with many Masters of the time, such as the Neo-Classical painter Ingres, the Romanticist Delacroix, and the Realist artists Corot and Millet. Even though admiring and appreciating their work, Frederic's vision didn't fit precisely with any of them.
The artist kept traveling throughout the continent in the next few years, coming back in 1859 and ultimately settling in London. He began attending the Hogarth Club, where he came in contact with the Pre-Raphaelites, meeting with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who had admired his artwork entitled Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna.
The British artist was praised by the public and art critics for his production of paintings and sculptures. His Academic background led him to mostly create biblical and historical subjects in a realistic but romantic manner, which explains his contradictory relationship with the Pre-Raphaelites. In 1860, he received a commission that finally cemented him as a mature artist: the poet Robert Browning wanted him to create an artwork for his wife's tomb. After this, Leighton distanced himself from historical painting, and his work became associated with Aestheticism.
However, this change in style approximated him to Rossetti and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. These artists built a fantasized universe based on the Classic world, which made Frederic Leighton quite unpopular in Royal Academy events. Leighton's synthesis of the Italian style flirted with the romantic perspective of Symbolism, which ostracized him from the recently built tradition of British painting.
By 1878, he became President of the Royal Academy, which he was an associate since 1864. The preceding years were marked by his production of landscapes while traveling abroad. The same year the Academy elected him President, he was knighted at Windsor for his outstanding artworks. Until then, despite his unpopularity among some circles, he built a very comfortable life, as he was a smart merchant of his work. His house flourished as an artistic environment where he held intimate Salons from time to time.
His last years were marked by tranquility. Not only was he a celebrated artist, but Leighton was highly praised for his dedication as the President of the Royal Academy. Despite his thoughtful way, he was warm and receptive toward students and teachers, bringing out the best of them.
Precisely because of his self-contained nature, many rumors about Leighton's sexuality emerged. It was usual to see a plethora of young and attractive men at the cultural events held in his house, which raised suspicion among his peers. The artist was intimate with one of his models during the 1880s. She was named Dorothy Dene and had working-class origins. In one of his friend's letters, Dorothy is called "Leighton's wife."
One year before his death, Frederic Leighton finished Flaming June. It's a square-format of an oil on canvas. Depicted is a sleeping woman. Her pose evokes the latent Classicism in his work, being reminiscent of the imagery around Nymphs. His inspiration for the piece was a statue named Night done by Michelangelo, as the woman's pose resembles the Old Master's work. In this picture, as well as his other classical paintings, Leighton exposed his mastery of oil painting. He portrayed different surfaces such as the sea's reflecting light, the transparency of her clothes, and the vivacity of the hair and flowers in a masterful way. The face of the female figure in Flaming June seems to be based on Dorothy Dene.
On January 24nd 1896, Leighton was the first painter to receive a peerage by the New Year Honours, which made him Baron Leighton of Stretton. Still, unfortunately, because of angina pectoris, a heart condition, he passed away the very next day. Despite the individuality of his work, the artist's production has been wrongfully placed under Academic art. In contrast, his work is much more indebted to Proto-Modern movements, such as what has been labeled as Aestheticism.
The British artist's work can be seen at the Leighton House Museum in Holland Park, London, a location he once called his home. Not only is Leighton's life work there, but also collections of his peers and Old Masters. There is also an artwork dedicated to Leighton by Sir John Everett Millais, who took his place as the President of the Royal Academy after his death in 1896. After Modernism's passionate spirit withered away, his work was reevaluated, and many important auction houses began selling his masterpieces.