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Frederick Leighton

Frederick LeightonBorn: 31-Dec-1830
Birthplace: Scarborough, Yorkshire, England
Died: 25-Jan-1896
Location of death: London, England [1]
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Painter

Nationality: England
Executive summary: Classical Victorian English painter

English painter and sculptor, the son of a physician, born at Scarborough on the 3rd of December 1830. His grandfather, Sir James Leighton, also a physician, was long resident at the court of St. Petersburg. Frederick Leighton was taken abroad at a very early age. In 1840 he learned drawing at Rome under Signor Meli. The family moved to Dresden and Berlin, where he attended classes at the Academy. In 1843 he was sent to school at Frankfurt, and in the winter of 1844 accompanied his family to Florence, where his future career as an artist was decided. There he studied under Bezzuoli and Segnolini at the Accademia delle Belle Arti, and attended anatomy classes under Zanetti; but he soon returned to complete his general education at Frankfurt, receiving no further direct instruction in art for five years. He went to Brussels in 1848, where he met Wiertz and Gallait, and painted some pictures, including "Cimabue finding Giotto", and a portrait of himself. In 1849 he studied for a few months in Paris, where he copied Titian and Correggio in the Louvre, and then returned to Frankfurt, where he settled down to serious art work under Edward Steinle, whose pupil he declared he was "in the fullest sense of the term." Though his artistic training was mainly German, and his master belonged to the same school as Cornelius and Johann Friedrich Overbeck, he loved Italian art and Italy and the first picture by which he became known to the British public was "Cimabue's Madonna carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence", which appeared at the Royal Academy in 1855. At this time the works of the Pre-Raphaelites almost absorbed public interest in art -- it was the year of Holman Hunt's "Light of the World", and the "Rescue" by John Everett Millais. Yet Leighton's picture, painted in quite a different style, created a sensation, and was purchased by Queen Victoria. Although, since his infancy, he had only visited England once (in 1851, when he came to see the Great Exhibition), he was not quite unknown in the cultured and artistic world of London, as he had made many friends during a residence in Rome of some two years or more after he left Frankfurt in 1852. Amongst these were Giovanni Costa, Robert Browning, James Knowles, George Mason and Sir Edward Poynter, then a youth, whom he allowed to work in his studio. He also met Thackeray, who wrote from Rome to the young Millais: "Here is a versatile young dog, who will run you close for the presidentship one of these days." During these years he painted several Florentine subjects -- "Tybalt and Romeo", "The Death of Brunelleschi", a cartoon of "The Pest in Florence according to Boccaccio", and "The Reconciliation of the Montagues and the Capulets." He now turned his attention to themes of classic legend, which at first he treated in a "Romantic spirit." His next picture, exhibited in 1856, was "The Triumph of Music: Orpheus by the Power of his Art redeems his Wife from Hades." It was not a success, and he did not again exhibit until 1858, when he sent a little picture of "The Fisherman and the Syren" to the Royal Academy, and "Samson and Delilah" to the Society of British Artists in Suffolk Street. In 1858 he visited London and made the acquaintance of the leading Pre-Raphaelites -- Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Holman Hunt and Millais. In the spring of 1859 he was at Capri, always a favorite resort of his, and made many studies from nature, including a very famous drawing of a lemon tree. It was not until 1860 that he settled in London, when he took up his quarters at 2 Orme Square, Bayswater, where he stayed until, in 1866, he moved to his celebrated house in Holland Park Road, with its Arab hall decorated with Damascus tiles. There he lived until his death. He now began to fulfil the promise of his "Cimabue", and by such pictures as "Paolo e Francesca", "The Star of Bethlehem", "Jezebel and Ahab taking Possession of Naboth's Vineyard", "Michael Angelo musing over his Dying Servant", "A Girl feeding Peacocks", and "The Odalisque", all exhibited in 1861-63, rose rapidly to the head of his profession. The two latter pictures were marked by the rhythm of line and luxury of color which are among the most constant attributes of his art, and may be regarded as his first dreams of Oriental beauty, with which he afterwards showed so great a sympathy. In 1864 he exhibited "Dante in Exile" (the greatest of his Italian pictures), "Orpheus and Eurydice" and "Golden Hours." In the winter of the same year he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy. After this the main effort of his life was to realize visions of beauty suggested by classic myth and history. If we add to pictures of this class a few Scriptural subjects, a few Oriental dreams, one or two of tender sentiment like "Wedded" (one of the most popular of his pictures, and well known by not only an engraving, but a statuette modelled by an Italian sculptor), a number of studies of very various types of female beauty, "Teresina", "Biondina", "Bianca", "Moretta", etc., and an occasional portrait, we shall nearly exhaust the two classes into which Lord Leighton's work (as a painter) can be divided.

Amongst the finest of his classical pictures were -- "Syracusan Bride leading Wild Beasts in Procession to the Temple of Diana" (1866), "Venus disrobing for the Bath" (1867), "Electra at the Tomb of Agamemnon", and "Helios and Rhodos" (1869), "Hercules wrestling with Death for the Body of Alcestis" (1871), "Clytemnestra" (1874), "The Daphnephoria" (1876), "Nausicaa" (1878), "An Idyll" (1881), two lovers under a spreading oak listening to the piping of a shepherd and gazing on the rich plain below; "Phryne" (1882), a nude figure standing in the sun; "Cymon and Iphigenia" (1884), "Captive Andromache" (1888), now in the Manchester Art Gallery; with the "Last Watch of Hero" (1887), "The Bath of Psyche" (1890), now in the Chantrey Bequest collection; "The Garden of the Hesperides" (1892), "Perseus and Andromeda" and "The Return of Persephone", now in the Leeds Gallery (1891); and "Clytie", his last work (1896). All these pictures are characterized by nobility of conception, by almost perfect draughtsmanship, by color which, if not of the highest quality, is always original, choice and effective. They often reach distinction and dignity of attitude and gesture, and occasionally, as in the "Hercules and Death", the "Electra" and the "Clytemnestra", a noble intensity of feeling. Perhaps, amidst the great variety of qualities which they possess, none is more universal and more characteristic than a rich elegance, combined with an almost fastidious selection of beautiful forms. It is the super-eminence of these qualities, associated with great decorative skill, that make the splendid pageant of the "Daphnephoria" the most perfect expression of his individual genius. Here we have his composition, his color, his sense of the joy and movement of life, his love of art and nature at their purest and most spontaneous, and the result is a work without a rival of its kind in the British School.

Leighton was one of the most thorough draughtsmen of his day. His sketches and studies for his pictures are numerous and very highly esteemed. They contain the essence of his conceptions, and much of their spiritual beauty and subtlety of expression was often lost in the elaboration of the finished picture. He seldom succeeded in retaining the freshness of his first idea more completely than in his last picture -- "Clytie" -- which was left unfinished on his easel. He rarely painted sacred subjects. The most beautiful of his few pictures of this kind was the "David musing on the Housetop" (1865). Others were "Elijah in the Wilderness" (1879), "Elisha raising the Son of the Shunammite" (1881) and a design intended for the decoration of the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral, "And the Sea gave up the Dead which were in it" (1892), now in the Tate Gallery, and the terrible "Rizpah" of 1893. His diploma picture was "St. Jerome", exhibited in 1869. Besides these pictures of sacred subjects, he made some designs for Dalziel's Bible, which for force of imagination excel the paintings. The finest of these are "Cain and Abel", and "Samson with the Gates of Gaza."

Not so easily to be classed, but among the most individual and beautiful of his pictures, are a few of which the motive was purely aesthetic. Amongst these may specially be noted "The Summer Moon", two Greek girls sleeping on a marble bench, and "The Music Lesson", in which a lovely little girl is seated on her lovely young mother's lap learning to play the lute. With these, as a work produced without any literary suggestion, though very different in feeling, may be associated the "Eastern Slinger scaring Birds in the Harvest-time: Moon-rise" (1875), a nude figure standing on a raised platform in a field of wheat. Leighton also painted a few portraits, including those of Signor Costa, the Italian landscape painter, Mr. F. P. Cockerell, Mrs. Sutherland Orr (his sister), Amy, Lady Coleridge, Mrs. Stephen Ralli and (the finest of all) Sir Richard Burton, the traveller and Eastern scholar, which was exhibited in 1876 and is now in the National Portrait Gallery.

Like other painters of the day, notably G. F. Watts, Lord Leighton executed a few pieces of sculpture. His "Athlete struggling with a Python" was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1877, and was purchased for the Chantrey Bequest collection. Another statue, "The Sluggard", of equal merit, was exhibited in 1886; and a charming statuette of a nude figure of a girl looking over her shoulder at a frog, called "Needless Alarms", was completed in the same year, and presented by the artist to Sir John Millais in acknowledgment of the gift by the latter of his picture, "Shelling Peas." He made the beautiful design for the reverse of the Jubilee Medal of 1887. It was also his habit to make sketch models in wax for the figures in his pictures, many of which are in the possession of the Royal Academy. As an illustrator in black and white he also deserves to be remembered, especially for the cuts to Dalziel's Bible, already mentioned, and his illustrations to George Eliot's Romola, which appeared in the Cornhill Magazine. The latter are full of the spirit of Florence and the Florentines, and show a keen sense of humor, elsewhere excluded from his work. Of his decorative paintings, the best known are the elegant compositions (in spirit fresco) on the walls of the Victoria and Albert Museum, representing "The Industrial Arts of War and Peace." There, also, is the refined and spirited figure of "Cimabue" in mosaic. In Lyndhurst church are mural decorations to the memory of Mr. Pepys Cockerell, illustrating "The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins."

Leighton's life was throughout marked by distinction, artistic and social. Though not tall, he had a fine presence and manners, at once genial and courtly. He was welcomed in all societies, from the palace to the studio. He spoke German, Italian and French, as well as English. He had much taste and love for music, and considerable gifts as an orator of a florid type. His Presidential Discourses (published, London, 1896) were full of elegance and culture. For seven years (1876-83) he commanded the 20th Middlesex (Artists) Rifle Volunteers, retiring with the rank of honorary colonel, and subsequently receiving the Volunteer Decoration. Yet no social attractions or successes diverted him from his devotion to his profession, the welfare of his brethren in art or of the Royal Academy. As president he was punctilious in the discharge of his duties, ready to give help and encouragement to artists young and old, and his tenure of the office was marked by some wise and liberal reforms. He frequently went abroad, generally to Italy, where he was well known and appreciated. He visited Spain in 1866, Egypt in 1868, when he went up the Nile with Ferdinand de Lesseps in a steamer lent by the Khedive. He was at Damascus for a short time in 1873. It was his custom on all these trips to make little lively sketches of landscape and buildings. These fresh little flowers of his leisure used to decorate the walls of his studio, and at the sale of its contents after his death realized considerable prices. It was when he was in the full tide of his popularity and success, and apparently in the full tide of his personal vigor also, that he was struck with angina pectoris. For a long time he struggled bravely with this cruel disease, never omitting except from absolute necessity any of his official duties except during a brief period of rest abroad, which failed to produce the desired effect. His death occurred on the 25th of January 1896.

Leighton was elected an Academician in 1868, and succeeded Sir Francis Grant as President in 1878, when he was knighted. He was created a baronet in 1886, and was raised to the peerage in 1896, a few days before his death. He held honorary degrees at the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Dublin, Edinburgh and Durham, was an Associate of the Institute of France; a Commander of the Legion of Honour, and of the Order of Leopold. He was a Knight of the Coburg Order, "Dem Verdienste", and of the Prussian Order, "Pour le Mérite", and a member of at least ten foreign Academies. In 1859 he won a medal of the second class at the Paris Salon, and at the Exposition Universelle of 1889 a gold medal. As a sculptor he was awarded a medal of the first class in 1878 and the Grand Prix in 1889.


[1] Leighton House, Holland Park, London, England.

Father: Frederic Septimus Leighton (doctor, b. 1799, d. 1892)
Mother: Augusta Susan Nash (dau. of George Augustus Nash)
Sister: Mrs Alexandra Orr Sutherland (b. 1828, d. 1903)

    University: Berlin Academy of Art (1842-)

    Royal Academy of Arts President (1878-96)
    Royal Academy of Arts (1869-96)
    Garrick Club
    Knight of the British Empire 1878


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