Artist – Frederic Lord Leighton


FREDERIC LEIGHTON came of a family of intellect and culture, which was, however, not especially artistic. His grandfather, Sir James Leigh-ton, was physician to the Court at St. Petersburg and received the honor of knighthood. His father, Dr. Frederic Leighton, also followed the profession of medicine, and in his early married life, in the hope of inheriting Sir James’s position, settled in the Russian capital, where his two eldest children were horn. A partial deafness contracted through taking cold necessitated his giving up active practice, and from this time he devoted himself to the study of natural and mental philosophy, and was noted for his keen intellectual ability and general culture. His wife’s ill-health made it imperative that they should leave St Petersburg, so they returned to England and settled for a time in Scarborough, Yorkshire, where Frederic, the third child, was born, on December 3, 1830. There were two other children in the family, but only Frederic and two sisters, Alexandra and Augusta, who became respectively Mrs. Sutherland-Orr and Mrs. Matthews, survived childhood. Frederic, who never married, was a most devoted son and brother.

When the lad was only ten years old the family traveled to Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. In fact, on account of his mother’s health the family life seems to have been a wandering one for a number of years, Bath, England, being finally determined upon as a place of residence. These travels were a great opportunity to the young Frederic, who took lessons in drawing at Rome of Signor Meli, and filled a number of sketch-books with drawings said to have been very precocious. In 1844 the boy declared his passion for art, and his father showed his work to Hiram Powers, who lived in Italy, asking, “Shall I make him an artist ?” to which the American sculptor re-plied, “Sir, you have no choice in the matter; he is one already.”

The boy learned anatomy most thoroughly from his father, and was placed in the Florence Academy under Bezzuoli and Servolini, rather mannered painters and not the best teachers, and whose influence it took some years to shake off. In Frankfort, where the family lived for some years, Frederic finished his general education, and at seventeen went for a year to the Stadletsches Institut. He studied for a short time in Brussels and also in Paris without much result, then went back to pursue his art education under Johann Eduard Steinle, his much honored and revered master. Steinle was one of the so-called school of `The Nazarenes, from their inclination to paint religious subjects, and who owed their inspiration to Overbeck and Pfühler. To quote from a letter that Leighton wrote to Mrs. Mark Pattison, who, in 1879, the year after his election to the presidency of the. Royal Academy, was collecting material for his biography: “My desire to be an artist dates as far back as my memory, and was wholly spontaneous, or rather unprompted. My parents surrounded me with every facility to learn drawing, but, as I have told you, strongly discountenanced the idea of my being an artist unless I could be eminent in art.” And speaking again in the same letter of his art training: “For bad by Florentine Academy; for good, far beyond all others, by Steinle, anoble-minded, single-hearted artist, s’il en faut. Technically I learnt (later) much from Robert Fleury, but being very receptive and prone to admire, I have learnt, and still do, from innumerable artists, big and small. Steinle’s is, however, the indelible seal. The thoroughness of all the great old masters is so pervading a quality that I look upon them all as forming an aristocracy.”

He stayed with Steinle until 1853, when the master, appreciating the pupil’s love and sympathy for Italy, advised his going to Rome and gave him a letter of introduction to the German artist, Cornelius. These years in Rome were the happiest, perhaps, of the artist’s life. There was a distinguished English colony living in the `Eternal City’ at this time, to which the young Leighton was a welcome addition. His greatest friendship, and one that was destined to be life-long, was with a woman thirty years older than himself, Mrs. Adelaide Sartoris (nêe Kemble), a singer of note and a woman of fine character and presence. Other friends were Henry Greville, Mr. and Mrs. Browning, George Mason, the painter, Gibson, the sculptor, Lord Lyons, and Thackeray, who on his return to England prophesied to Millais, “Millais! my boy, I have met in Rome a versatile young dog called Leighton, who will one of these days run you hard for the presidentship!”

During these winters in Rome, and his travels during the summer, he sketched and worked at his first great picture, `Cimabue’s Madonna carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence,’ which was finally exhibited at the Royal Academy in the spring of 1855, and which called forth much favorable criticism from the public, the press, and Ruskin. It was bought by the Queen for eight hundred pounds, much to his father’s satisfaction. The young artist’s fame was thus established. It is characteristic of his generous nature and his desire throughout life to help young artists, that with this first money earned he bought pictures of three then little known painters, one of whom was George Mason, of later renown in England.

Leighton’s father now insisted on his return to England, and during the next five years he had a studio for a time in London, for a time in Paris, making frequent visits to Italy;. but it was not until 186o, when the artist was thirty years of age, that he definitely settled in London, taking a studio at Orme Square, Bayswater. Here he remained until his removal, in 1866, to the beautiful house which was built for him after designs by his friend the architect George Aitchison, in Holland Park Road. The famous Arab Hall faced with tiles from Damascus especially selected by his friends was not added until about eleven years later. It has been said that the house was as much a work of art as any of his pictures, but eclectic in its collection of beautiful things, like its cultured master. After his death the house was acquired by the government as a national monument to his memory.

As we have seen, Leighton’s entire education was acquired on the continent, and he was also a great traveler, having both the means and the inclination to be one. He made almost yearly visits in the autumn to Italy, which he called his “second home.” In 1857 he visited Algiers; in 1866, Spain; the following year, Austria, Constantinople, Athens, and the Levant; and the year following that he went up the Nile with De Lesseps. In 1873 he visited Damascus; in 1877 he revisited Spain. All landscapes, though of widely different character, appealed to him; in his later years he was accustomed to spend August and September either in the rugged mountains of Scotland or on the coast of Ireland. His foreign education and his love of travel and appreciation of beauty in all forms account for his extreme eclecticism. In his early years he was wont to choose Italian subjects, as witness his `Cimabue’s Procession’ and the still earlier subject painted in Paris of `Cimabue finding Giotto in the Fields of Florence,’ as well as `The Death of Brunelleschi,’ `The Plague at Florence,” Paolo and Francesca,’ and `Michael Angelo nursing his Dying Servant.’ After his visits to Greece he chose subjects for the most part from Grecian mythology or literature.

Leighton was a constant exhibitor at the Royal Academy. Each year he sent one or more canvases. Among so many it is difficult to choose the most important. Among some of his early pictures may be mentioned `Golden Hours,’ `Lieder ohne Worte,’ `David,’ `Helen of Troy,’ `Syracusae Bride leading Wild Beasts in Procession to the Temple of Diana,’ `Venus disrobing for the Bath,’ ‘Ariadne abandoned by Theseus.’ In 1864 he was made an Associate of the Royal Academy, and a full Academician five years later. For a diploma picture he painted `St. Jerome.’ In the foreground kneels the aged saint in anguished prayer before a crucifix; in the background the back of a seated lion silhouetted against a lurid sky has a somewhat bizarre and fantastic effect. He also sent in for exhibition in 1869 three pictures, entitled `Daedalus and Icarus,”Electra at the Tomb of Agamemnon,’ and `Helios and Rhodes,’ the last remarkable for its passionate color.

Besides the work on these easel-pictures, in 1861, on the death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, he designed her monument for the English cemetery in Florence, having during her lifetime once made an illustration for her poem `The Great God Pan.’ In 1862 he illustrated George Eliot’s `Romola’ as it appeared in `The Cornhill Magazine.’ He also illustrated Dalziel’s `Bible’ and Mrs. Sartoris’s novel `A Week in a French Country House.’ In 1860 he painted in fresco `The Wise and Foolish Virgins’ for the village church at Lyndhurst, and later received the commission for two lunettes for the Victoria and Albert Museum at South Kensington,as well as for some figures for a frieze. The first lunette, `The Arts of War,’ was begun in 1870 and finished ten years later; the second, `The Arts of Peace,’ begun in 1881, was completed in six years’ time. In the first he drew his inspiration from the Middle Ages, the Age of Chivalry; in the latter, from the classic life of Greece.

Mrs. Barrington, one of his recent biographers, says that during the ten years after he was made an Academician he painted thirty-six important pictures, twenty-six slighter works, and produced his first statue, and that after his election as President of the Royal Academy in 1878, on the death of Sir Francis Grant, he exhibited at the Royal Academy eighty canvases, two statues, and two designs, one for the Jubilee Medal of 1887 and the other for the proposed decoration of the dome of St. Paul’s, `And the Sea gave up the Dead which were in it’ (plate ix).

In considering the relative importance of these works we might mention first two canvases painted in 1871, `Herakles wrestling with Death for the Body of Alcestis’ (plate i), and `Greek Girls picking up Pebbles by the Seashore.’ `Summer Moon,’ a decorative composition most sumptuous in color, was Watts’s favorite of all Leighton’s pictures, doubtless because, as Mrs. Barrington thinks, it was “looser and more vibrating” in treatment and has more atmosphere than is customary in his work. In 1876 he painted the `Daphnephoria’ (plate x), a large canvas considered by some to be his finest work, and a portrait of Sir Richard Burton (plate v); in 1879, `Elijah in the Wilderness,’ into which the artist affirmed that he put more of himself than into any other picture. In 1877 his most important work was a bronze figure of an `Athlete struggling with a Python,’ so graceful in its attitude and so perfect in its anatomy that many were led to believe that Leighton’s province lay in sculpture rather than in painting. A replica of this statue in marble was made for the Glyptothek of Copenhagen, the original being now in the Tate Gallery, as well as another bronze sculptured later from the same model, called at first `The Athlete resting,’ but which is generally known under the title of `The Sluggard.’ Leighton also modeled figures in clay to use as studies of foreshortening for his work in oils.

The artist in his youth wrote to his master, Steinle: “You will be surprised, but in spite of my fanatic preference for color, I promise myself to be a drafts-man before I become a colorist.” Leighton was an accurate and diligent workman. He made a number of cartoons and sketches for each picture, studies of the model nude, of the model draped, and of the drapery alone. Each picture went through seven or eight stages before its completion. In-deed, it has been said by those critics who do not admire his style that the moment he took up the pencil inspiration vanished. Even George Frederick Watts, his devoted friend for over forty years, felt that Leighton often labored too assiduously over his pictures, thereby destroying their spontaneity.

Other canvases of Leighton’s later years were `Elisha raising the Son of the Shulamite,’ `Phryne at Eleusis,’ `Wedded’— standing before which Robert Browning exclaimed, “I see more poetry in that man’s painting than in any other.” `Cymon and Iphigenia’ (plate II) he chose to represent himself at the Exposition in Berlin in 1885. He had modeled the same subject in clay, which Watts extravagantly praised when he declared “Phidias could not have done better.” The artist presented his friend with the group, but it was unhappily destroyed in the attempt to cast it in bronze.

In 1888 Leighton painted the third of his large canvases with many figures, `Captive Andromache’ (plate vi), followed in later years by `Perseus and Andromeda,’ `Return of Persephone,’ in all of which is seen his preference for the classic subject. The picture called `Clytie,’ an unusually passion-ate one for Leighton, remained unfinished at his death, as well as `Phoenicians bartering with Britons,’ designed as a decoration for the walls of the Royal Exchange. In 1895, the last year that he exhibited, `Lachrymae’ (plate vii) and ‘Flaming June’ were the canvases which he sent in.

As President of the Royal Academy Sir Frederic Leighton was most efficient and punctilious, although he never let official duties interfere with the regular morning and afternoon hours he spent at his easel. He instituted the biennial addresses to the students of the Academy and inaugurated at Burlington House the winter exhibitions of Old Masters.

Always delicate in health, the last two years of his life the artist suffered from angina pectoris. He revisited Algiers in the winter of 1895 in the hope of regaining his health. After having been knighted in 1878, created a baronet in 1886, on New Year’s Day, 1896, he was granted a peerage to be called Lord Leighton of Stretton, a town in Shropshire, from which the family had formerly emigrated to Yorkshire. This was the first time that such an honor had ever been given a painter; but the artist did not live long to enjoy it, for, three weeks later, he was taken very ill, and died on the twenty-fifth of January. His will left all to his sisters, though he had previously expressed the wish that they should give ten thousand pounds to the Academy. Almost his last words after signing his will were, “Give my love to the Academy.” His body remained in state at Burlington House before the grand public funeral took place at St. Paul’s, on February the third. The Archbishop of York, Chaplain of thé Royal Academy, officiated at the services, and Lord Leighton was laid to rest in the cathedral beside Sir Joshua Reynolds. Thomas Brock designed the monument for his tomb and also his bust, which stands in the hall of Leighton House.

In addition to the honors already mentioned that came to him, he was made an Associate of the Institute of France and Commander of the Legion of Honor, he received the “Order of Leopold,” and was made a knight of the Prussian Order “Pour le mérite.” He was also an honorary member of eight foreign academies and had honorary degrees conferred upon him from five universities.

( Originally Published 1908 )

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