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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Born into an affluent Yorkshire home in 1830, Frederic Leighton was one of Britain's greatest talents. In many ways, Leighton was indeed a man out of his time. He was also a very intelligent man with great charisma.

Perhaps owing to the fact that he travelled extensively in his youth, he spoke four languages. Frederic was a very open-minded person who accepted people of all walks of life and developed quite forward-thinking, some would say modern, views. In Victorian England, at the height of the Empire, this was not popular, consequently he was initially received poorly by society and his contemporaries. However, when Queen Victoria herself bought one of his paintings in 1855, his career as an artist was assured. Leighton’s artistic career spanned over 40 years, accordingly, the art world has been left a vast collection of his works to treasure.

The Training of a Master

Leighton was very self-effacing about his art work. He did not consider himself a master or a profound talent. However, history would disagree. Frederic's gifts were detected early and by the age of 15 he had studied at several renowned academies of art throughout Europe. Doubtless it is Leighton's early exposure to the sights of Florence, Rome and Paris to name only a few, that informed his later expansive and vibrant works. However, it was in Munich, under the tutelage of Eduard von Steinle, that Frederic truly began to develop his gifts.

Von Steinle was a shining light in the German Nazarene Movement which promoted the true spirituality of Christian art and his own work was romantic and beautiful. It is clear that Leighton was profoundly influenced by von Steinle's style during his time as a student. Moreover, even though they only worked together for three years, their friendship lasted until Steinle's death in 1886. His whole life, Frederic referred to Steinle as his master, acknowledging his great respect for the man and his work.

The Pre-Raphaelite Fraternity and Other Influences

Leighton is said to have been a very affable man with a relaxed manner, and as such he easily and readily "acquired" influential artist friends and acquaintances. On his extensive European travels, he met and befriended many prominent people of the day; while he was in Rome, he developed a friendship with poets Robert and Elizabeth Browning, writer William Makepiece Thackery and Chopin's famous mistress, George Sands. However, it was a few years later, while living in Paris, that Frederic met the giants of aestheticism, specifically Jean-Francois Millet and Jean-August-Dominique Ingres, that he truly began to find his feet artistically.

The new aestheticism which was growing in the mid 1850's promoted beauty above everything, and it was this philosophy that inspired Leighton throughout his career. It was at this time that Frederic produced his first painting of great note, Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna is Carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence (1853-55). It was so vast, that when it was displayed at the Royal Academy in 1855, there were very real concerns that it may not fit the space. However, fit it did, and its magnificence promptly caught the eye of Prince Albert. It is said that he was so enchanted that he made Queen Victoria buy it for him.

When Leighton returned to England in 1859, his natural ability to seek out the talent of the day led him to The Hogarth Club where he met and fell in with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais. Rossetti and Millais were founders of the Pre-Raphaelite movement which was a group of English artists, poets and writers who sought to revive the vivid colours, classical poses and exquisite detail of the high renaissance painters. Although Frederic is considered a Pre-Raphaelite, he was not an active member of the fraternity in a political sense. His painting style, using vibrant colours and meticulous details, and his preferred classical choices of subject, such as Greek and Roman mythology, meant that the movement was a natural fit for his artistic sensibilities even though he allegedly had numerous heated debates on the subject with his friend Rossetti.

Leighton the Painter

Leighton's gifts were quite obvious to the art world of the Victorian era, however his love of all things European often meant that his work had a foreign feel to it. The result of this cosmopolitan choice of subject matter was that he was routinely snubbed by the English art critics. Even though he received luke-warm critiques, Leighton was a huge hit with the art-loving public, and he was never short of commissions.

An accomplished portrait painter, Frederic, in fact, painted very few of the aristocracy of the time. His talent for portraiture was instead use in his rendering of his models. Even in his ensemble works such as The Garden of the Hesperides (1891), each figure had perfectly rendered features and expressions. This meticulous attention to detail along with the rich and glowing colours, became Frederic's signature. Never was his artistic style more beautifully rendered than in Flaming June (1895). Widely considered his true masterpiece, Flaming June depicts a nymph sleeping in a chair draped in a magnificent golden dress.

It is thought to have been modelled on Michelangelo's famous sculpture Night (1526-1531) as this was a work particularly favoured by Leighton. Not only does it display Frederic's immense talent, but it indicated his continental influence which kept him out of favour with British critics for so long. Despite the art industry's distain, Leighton had established a huge fan in Queen Victoria. As a result, in 1868 he was commissioned to create two enormous frescos, The Leighton Frescos to adorn the newly established Victoria and Albert Museum.

Depicting the fruits of war and the fruits of peace, they are both intellectually sophisticated and technically brilliant. To this day it remains quite a feat to have created something so large while at the same time so detailed and relevant. A renowned perfectionist and workaholic, Leighton often sketched for months before starting a painting to ensure the perfect pose or composition. As a result of this compulsion, today we have a clear understanding of how he worked as an artist and an appreciation for his profound work ethic.

The Changing Face of Sculpture

Leighton was also a remarkable sculptor. His earliest work of sculpture was for his friend Robert Browning when he was commissioned to create a tomb for his beloved wife who died in Florence 1855. It remains in the English Cemetery in Florence.

It was not until 1877 that Frederic revisited sculpture as a form of expression when he created Athlete Wrestling a Python. It was received as a triumph. Leighton was hailed as the bringer of a rebirth of sculpture and it initiated the New Sculpture movement which promoted the natural form and movement so beautifully depicted in his work. In fact, his new work was so revered that the following year he was made the president of the Royal Society and bestowed a knighthood by his patron, Victoria.

Leighton followed his success with The Sluggard in 1885. Also rendered in bronze this statue is remarkable in its realistic form. The statue is a male nude stretching as though just wakened from a sleep. Many have remarked on its sensual qualities leaving modern scholars to suggest there may have been an intimacy between the artist and subject. Frederic's sculptures were, in essence, an extension of his painting in that he pursued rigorous preparation for them by way of copious drawings and sketches; which allows us to appreciate his process, even today.

Leighton's Legacy

There is little doubt that Frederic's legacy is first and foremost his work, however, he was also responsible for encouraging a great many budding artists at the studio he set up in his house. This studio provided a place where all the young talent of the day could commune and find inspiration. Ultimately, the most famous artist he directly influenced came a generation after him; John William Waterhouse. Waterhouse's work and techniques can clearly be related to Leighton’s; indeed, many suggest that if Frederic had painted Arthurian legend there would have been little space for Waterhouse.

On Leighton's death he bequeathed his home in Holland Park and most of its contents to the city of London. Today it is the Leighton House Museum and it exhibits much of Frederic's work as well as many beautiful paintings and artefacts from his own collection. It is certainly worth a visit.