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Frederic Leighton

Frederic Leighton - The Garden of the Hesperides, 1892
The Garden of the Hesperides‎, 1892

Sir Frederic Leighton was born in Scarborough, England on December 3, 1830. He is one of Britain's most well-known artists from the Victorian Age, typifying a style of Romantic sensual Academic Classicism that foreshadows Art Nouveau. Leighton gives all his figures an elegance and grace—sometimes forced— yet somehow musical to watch, a visual poetry. He has a similar sensibility to the Dutch artist of the same era: Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Leighton also has a strong sense for colour that is more organic than his contemporaries. His use of reds, oranges, yellows, greens and blues are never garish or unnatural. Portraiture was also something he was easily well-versed in, capturing his sitters with a dignity and poise that was distinctive. He often used a lovely female actress of the day as his model whose beauty still inspires today.

In The Garden of the Hesperides‎ above, Leighton's feminine side dominates the composition and tone. In Greek mythology these garden nymphs of the evening and sunset lie underneath a tree of golden apples (or oranges) that made anyone who ate them immortal. This theme has been approached by both sculptors and painters as far back as Ancient Rome and the Etruscans. Here Leighton arranges these figures as relaxed and draped around the tree itself, a very different interpretation of Greek mythology. Leighton's nymphs have an undulating rhythm. In fact, the tree itself has a phallic sort of shape. And the creature entwined around the middle nymph is the same from the labors of Heracles.

Leighton Girl with a basket of fruit
Girl with a basket of fruit, 1863

I love the elegance and grace of this woman. Although the fruit basket doesn't quite feel like a weight on top of her head, the real subject is the woman herself. Poetic and beautiful with golden skin. Leighton gives her profile a sculptural aesthetic, yet the red hair offers a sense of independence and personality. She may not be a nymph, nor do her fruits offer immortality, but her grace here suggests balance of intelligence and feminine poise.

Frederic Leighton - Garden of an Inn, Capri - Google Art Project
Garden of an Inn, Capri 1859

I love the lush greens of this painting. Capri is such a beautiful island and Leighton here was definitely seduced by its charms. The variety of vegetation in this spot was too beautiful to ignore and Leighton dutifully captures every nuance of a green fertile garden. The blue sky in the far distance adds a distinct summer outdoor feel —note how the craggy cliffs on the left contrast with the warm toned architecture of the church to the right. I like also how the white posts add a framing device, along with the skinny branches, to separate the vegetation and lead the eye toward the walls of the inn on the right. This painting has the spontaneity of a photo but is much more. It invites us to experience it.

Frederic Leighton - Cimabue's Madonna Carried in Procession - Google Art Project 2
Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna is carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence, 1855

An incredible panoramic, Leighton here has the ease of Veronese and the sensibility of Gérôme but with his own distinct palette. Look at his use of red in this painting. So crisp and gorgeous. In fact, every figure here has an incredible palette. Even the central figures of Cimabue himself holding his son's hand, with the subtle blue whites in the boy's shirt echoed in the man's breeches...a blue he uses again in the dramatic blue sky beyond. Compositions of this type that comprise a horizontal arrangement of figures are never easy to portray, especially when most of the figures fall along the same height. Leighton uses not only activity but character to illustrate the scene. The figures in the foreground are fully depicted while those behind are occasionally hidden behind other figures—a neat trick that adds depth while reducing the need to show every single person. Yet despite the fact this event is depicting the procession of a Madonna painting, the subject is actually the figures themselves. Leighton is making a clever statement on the vanity of the Florentines in this particular scene. The adults have a distinct air about them while the children casually toss bouquets of flowers along the ground. The figure off to the far left cradling the baby may be a possible self-portrait of Leighton. The painting hangs in the National Gallery in London above the main entrance foyer. Queen Victoria loved the painting so much she bought it for herself. Rightly so. It is a stunning achievement.

Frederic Leighton, portrait of Giovanni Costa
Portrait of Professor Giovanni Costa, 1878

An esteemed landscape painter and Risorgimento fighter, Costa fought under Garibaldi in 1848 before working in Rome and Florence, where he became Professor at the Accademia di Belle Arti. During this time he met Leighton, among several artists of the day, and Costa agreed to pose for this portrait. It is a rare and astonishing display of character for Leighton, a portrait that stacks up against some of the greatest. Profile paintings typically have a stiff formality to them that is off-putting and cold, but here Leighton imbues Costa with a deep humbleness and respect, something incredibly difficult to achieve in a portrait. We can sense the pain and life experience of this man without even knowing him. Leighton's very careful brushwork and warm light offer a glimpse of a man we would like to know more about, yet empathize with him completely. The lost gaze in his eyes is magnetic.

Lord Frederic Leighton - Wedded - Google Art Project
Wedded, 1882

Leighton's Romantic and Classical style merge together here. The roughness of the fabric, painted in loose brushstrokes, is very much Romantic...even in the flesh of this strong man, while the woman has a soft, feminine grace that pervades all of his work. Leighton's figures have a sculptural quality here yet his palette in the costumes has an emotional quality that reflects the subjects. Her floral green motif contrasts with his mottled Mars reddish tones. Note how Leighton's use of hands conveys tenderness and love. This is a painting one can look at for hours.

Leighton, Frederic - Idyll - c. 1880-81
Idyll, 1881

Some paintings invite us to participate, they draw us into them, and this is one of those paintings. It has no clear meaning and yet it is peaceful and sensual. Leighton's palette is reminiscent of Titian yet his two female figures are so graceful in this dreamy, warm light. The branch above them frames the composition and adds a depth and naturalism that completes the scene. I like the way Leighton contrasts masculine and feminine here with an articulate line and anatomy. Leighton's love of drapery defines the scene, as always, and had the figures been completely nude it would have been scandalous. The use of light is nothing short of brilliant here.

Greek Girls Playing at Ball, 1871

An unusual and intriguing work. Leighton depicts a theme of innocence amidst a setting of Ancient Greece, with his profound love of drapery and colour. The scene is so surreal, even the clouds above have an odd color to them. Why young Greek girls would be playing ball atop of a large structure such as this defies description yet is so intriguing. Leighton's flesh is superb here. I wonder what Lawrence Alma Tadema would have thought of this painting, since it seems to mock the traditional feminine roll in conventional Greek society.

1878 Frederick Leighton - Nausicaa
Nausicaa, ca.1879

A beautiful work of Victorian Classicism that demonstrates Leighton's supreme love and respect for the female form. From Homer's Odyssey, she was the daughter of King Alcinous who helps Odysseus after he is shipwrecked on her island. Here, Leighton disassociates her from all mythology and gives her a beauty that anyone can admire. Her face, with teeming blue eyes, is hypnotic. I love the idea of a minor character from a Classic epic poem made into a portrait that is statuesque.

Arts of Industry as Applied to Peace
The Arts of Industry as Applied to Peace, 1870-1872

This large mural resides in the Victorian and Albert museum and I had the privilege of seeing it in person a couple of years ago. A full size oil sketch appears in the same room. Despite the wide view in this photo the room is actually quite narrow and dimly lit.

Leighton is an incredibly versatile artist, and a full analysis of his oeuvre is time-consuming and difficult, not including his sculpture which is also dynamic and brilliant. Leighton is an artist whose use of color and anatomy is a beauty to behold, timeless and elegant, and well deserving of his knighthood. Painting is a visual poetry, and Leighton was a true poet of his era.


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