Artist – The Art Of Leighton

“THE enemy, then, is this indifference in the presence of the ugly; it is only by the victory over this apathy that you can rise to better things; it is only by the rooting out and extermination of what is ugly that you can bring about conditions in which beauty shall be a power among you.” These words are taken from the Presidential Address by Lord (then Sir Frederic) Leighton at the Art Congress of Liverpool in 1888, and they embody, in a few words, the artistic creed of the speaker. From the beginning to the end of his career the aim of his art was to cultivate the spirit of pure, unalloyed beauty. He was not content to make a beautiful whole out of imperfect or unlovely elements, but, like the ancient Greeks, he determined that every item of his compositions, to the very smallest detail, should be beautiful of its kind and wrought with the utmost care. If the millennium is to be brought about by the “extermination of what is ugly,” he did his best by precept and practice to hasten its advent.

It may be stated as the distinction of Leighton among his peers that he worshipped beauty, and especially beauty of form, more exclusively than they. There is little or nothing of the mystic or the didactic in his art, which exists to create beautiful images. Often beauty is their sole motive; sometimes they clothe a beautiful idea, sometimes they present a fine dramatic scene; but in all cases the treatment is essentially aesthetic, whether the subject be the face of a woman, or some tremendous theme like `Herakles wrestling with Death’ or `Rizpah defending the Dead Bodies of her Children.’ No violence is sufficient to make his draperies fall in ungraceful folds; no passion will disturb his features to disfigurement; with the pathos of deformity his art has no concern, and it has little toleration even for strength without refinement. In these respects he followed the traditions of the finest artists of Greece; and in others also, for he went to nature for his models, and his ideal was no fantastic offspring of his own imagination, but the perfect development of a normal body. It was not confined to one type of beauty, and perhaps, therefore, I should have said his “ideals;” for there have been few other artists so devoted to beauty in the abstract, who had also so wide a feeling for its different manifestations. If we could gather together all his female heads we should find Greek and English, Turkish and Italian, French and Spanish, blonde and brunette, severe and lively, robust and delicate — a very gallery of different types, but each beautiful after its kind, with a beauty of pure form, independent of accident or expression. These heads are studies from nature, but they are ideal also, for they are all molded with an elegance, draped with a refinement, and colored with a charm which are personal to the artist.

Leighton painted but few portraits, but among them are two at least which are masterpieces. One of these is Sir Richard Burton, the famous traveler and oriental scholar, and the other of himself, painted for the Gallery of the Uffizi. As a colorist Leighton was original and effective, and his palette was select and varied. He was as fastidious in the beauty of his individual tints as in the selection of his forms. He had a lovely gamut of red, plum, crimson, olive, cinnamon, chocolate, saffron, orange, amber, pink, and other nameless broken tints, and closed it with a very fine and pure purple of which he was very fond. With this affluent and luxurious scale, which may be compared to that of a box of preserved fruits, he constructed many harmonies grave and gay, dainty and luscious, which often give much pleasure and are always highly ornamental; but the general effect is somewhat artificial, and misses the quietude, the fulness, and the depth of the greatest color-poets.


THE bronze figure by Mr. Leighton of an athlete struggling with a serpent is to be regarded as perhaps the highest achievement in the Exhibition [at the Royal Academy, 1877]. The first essay in sculpture of one who is by profession a painter, this figure not only takes high rank according to the particular laws of the art in which it is expressed, but it far excels, in our judgment, any work in painting which Mr. Leighton has produced. It is conceived in a spirit more masculine; it has an energy that comes nearer to the truth of life, and a grace that is more consistent with strength. As a painter, Mr. Leighton is constantly yielding to the charms of an effeminate beauty; the tendencies of his style serve to weaken his invention; whereas the process of sculpture would seem to have inspired him with a new vigor and a more nervous force. The peculiar limitations of the art exercise a bracing effect upon his artistic constitution, and give to the result of his labors a certain austere dignity which as a painter he has never been able to command. On the other hand, the sacrifice is not so great as it would have been to a great colorist. Mr. Leighton’s color was always carefully balanced, highly polished, and scrupulously smooth; but it never possessed the kind of magic and charm by which we may recognize the work of a true colorist. It was the fruit of study and good taste, but not of that direct inspiration which is able without any loss of harmony to preserve a reminiscence of the strength and purity of natural tints. He has, therefore, lost little and gained much by the exchange of canvas for’ bronze. The exceptional gifts of design which he possesses, the technical knowledge and skill which he can command, are of equal service to him in the new material, and they have enabled him to produce a work in which we find more to admire and less to criticize than in any of his paintings. It is true, of course, that an artist can be no more than himself, whatever may be the means he employs; and it is possible to discover in this bronze figure some traces of those essential defects of style which are inseparable from his artistic individuality. The grace of Mr. Leighton’s forms is always a little conscious. They are always aware, even in their freest and most energetic movements, of the presence of their author, who is on the watch to see that they do not transgress any of the laws of art; and they are, therefore, never entirely absorbed in their own concerns.


AMONGST our other great painters, there are only four who can be said to seriously attempt to paint the nude figure: these are, Sir Frederic Leighton, Mr. Edward Burne-Jones, Mr. E. J. Poynter, and, occasionally, Mr. Albert Moore and Mr. Alma-Tadema, the latter a Belgian by birth. Of these artists, Sir Frederic Leighton’s method is probably the hardest to characterize in a few words, if only because it combines such various qualities. This most accomplished artist has studied in the chief schools of England, France, Germany, and Italy; and one result of the various teaching he has undergone has been to make him a sort of artistic Achitophel. He has been too much taught to have learnt anything worth the learning; like some of the unfortunate youths who take high honors at their university, he has more knowledge than he knows what to do with; and while capable of painting anything in any style, he feels little inclination to use his powers for purposes of expression. The contours of a woman’s back, the softness of a woman’s limbs, the sweetness of a woman’s eyes, and the languor of a woman’s love — these are nearly all the subjects that occupy his pencil, and, as might be expected, the continual pruning away of human imperfections and human emotions to which he has subjected his pictures has resulted in their having but little interest, and even, in the best sense of the word, but little beauty. The loveliness that “comes from no secret of proportion, but from the secret of deep human sympathy,” is alien to Sir Frederic Leighton’s work, and he keeps, as far as his pictures tell us, no corner of his heart for “the few in the forefront of the great multitude whose faces we know, whose hands we touch, for whom we have to make way in kindly courtesy.” This want of sympathy shows clearly enough in the artist’s treatment of the figure, which, with all its delicate correctness, has a smoothness and softness that are not of nature. Under the delicate peach-bloom of his maidens’ cheeks, and the clear brown skin of his athletes, there is felt the same want of reality; his lovers whispering in the twilight, as in last year’s Academy picture, call forth little emotion; they are as unhuman in their perfection as the voices of the earth and air in Shelley’s `Prometheus.’

Hands that have done no work and hearts that have known no sorrow; soft robes that have never been soiled with rain or torn by storm; a blue sky above their heads and a fruitful earth beneath their feet, and an atmosphere of the land where it seems always afternoon — such are the actors and their surroundings of Sir Frederic Leighton’s later works. Is it any wonder that they have little appeal for us who live, girt by the beating of the steely sea, in an age which has certainly little in common with that of Arcady ?

In fact, Sir Frederic Leighton plays upon the human body with as much skill and with as much indifference as a practised musician, and one day, perhaps, he will be astonished to learn that

“There is much marvelous music in this little pipe”

that he cannot compel to utterance.


SIR FREDERIC LEIGHTON was not only the official representative of English painting on the Continent, he was virtually the representative of Continental painting in England. There is no greater, or less insular, master of painting than he, across the Channel. President of the Royal Academy, decorator of the National Museum at Kensington, Director of the official schools, speech-maker at the distribution of their prizes, this Englishman of good birth and great talent would appear, at first sight, to have been in his great works a second Overbeck and in his easel-pictures an earlier Bouguereau. He visited all countries and schools, learned all languages, reproduced all styles, and attempted almost every art. At an age when our future artists are filling their students’ manuals with caricatures he had already studied at Rome, at Dresden, at Berlin, at Frankfort, at Florence, running through Europe and through aestheticism, before he had time and taste for discrimination and decision. Later, he visited the ruins of the Coliseum with Robert Browning, the Banks of the Nile with M. de Lesseps, old German castles with Steinle, Paris salons with Decamps and Ary Scheffer; working everywhere, imbibing sunshine at Damascus and fog at Frankfort, painting dreary seas in Ireland and rocks in the Valley of Jehoshaphat, orange-trees in Andalusia and olive-trees in Italy; filling his trunks and his imagination with all he could see of the best, the most beautiful, the purest. When he returned to London, in his prime, he displayed all his acquisitions. His sumptuous dwelling in Holland Park Road was the Temple of Eclecticism.. It was a Pantheon with altars to all forms of art, to all the gods of aestheticism, and you looked involuntarily for an empty altar dedicated to “the unknown God.”

In all his work, though you may find many various inspirations and many different subjects, you will never find a single low or sensual idea, a single appeal to appetite, a single playing with the brush. Nor will you find a figure made by rule, by chance, without a studied attitude or a careful definition of gesture. Subjects which raise the mind to the summits of life or of history, so that you cannot recall a nose or a leg without the remembrance of some lofty moral lesson, or at least of some great social need, are what Sir Frederic Leighton has painted, in a more sober style than Overbeck’s, and a more manly one than Bouguereau’s. Moreover, he has never extracted from the annals of nations the agitation and horror of scenes of war, as our great historical painters are so apt to do; his are scenes expressing union, concord, and the communion of minds tending to the same goal; the moments when all hearts beat in unison; the `Madonna of Cimabue carried in triumph through the streets of Florence,’ or `The Daphnephoria.’

The grandeur of human communion, the nobleness of peace, are the themes which have best and oftenest inspired Sir Frederic Leighton. And he did not find this theme in France or elsewhere. It is essentially English. He did not bring it back from his many voyages, packed up with his Persian enamels. We were looking in his studio just now for an altar to the unknown God.

This is the unknown God who met the artist when he set forth in his own land, and who has supplanted all the rest.


ENGLAND is the country of the sculptures of the Parthenon, the country where Bulwer Lytton wrote his `Last Days of Pompeii,’ and where the most Grecian female figures in the world may be seen to move. Thus painters of antique subjects still play an important part in the pursuit of English art — probably the pursuit of art, rather than its development; for they have never enriched the treasury of modern sentiment. Trained, all of them, in Paris or Belgium, they are equipped with finer taste, and have acquired abroad a more solid ability than James Barry, Haydon, and Hinton, the half-barbaric English classicists of the beginning of the century. But at bottom —like Cabanal and Bouguereau—they represent rigid conservatism in opposition to progress, and the way in which they set about the reconstruction of an august or domestic antiquity is only distinguished by an English nuance of race from that of Couture and Gérôme.

Lord Leighton, the late highly cultured President of the Royal Academy, was the most dignified representative of this tendency. He was a classicist through and through, in the balance of composition, the rhythmical flow of lines, and the confession of faith that the highest aim of art is the representation of men and women of immaculate build. In the picture-galleries of Paris, Rome, Dresden, and Berlin he received his youthful impressions; his artistic discipline he received under Zanetti in Florence, under Wirtz and Gallait in Brussels, under Steinle in Frankfort, and under Ingres and Ary Scheirer in Paris. Back in England once more, he translated Couture into English as Anselm Feuerbach translated him into German with greater independence. Undoubtedly there has never been anything upon his can-vas which could be supposed ungentleman like, and as a nation is usually apt to prize most the very thing which has been denied it, for which it has no talent, Leighton was soon an object of admiration to the refined world. As early as 1864 he became an associate, and in November, 1879, President of the Royal Academy. For sixteen years he sat like a Jupiter upon his throne in London. An accomplished man of the world and a good speaker, a scholar who spoke all languages and had seen all countries, he possessed every quality which the president of an academy needs to have; he had an exceedingly imposing presence in his red gown, and did the honors of his house with admirable tact.

But one stands before his works with a certain feeling of indifference. There are few artists with so little temperament as Lord Leighton, few in the same degree wanting in the magic of individuality. The purest academical art, as the phrase is understood of Ingres, together with academical severity of form, is united with a softness of feeling recalling Hofmann of Dresden, and the result is a placid classicality adapted ad usum Delphian’, a classicality foregoing the applause of artists, but all the more in accordance with the taste of a re-fined circle of ladies. His chief works, `The Star of Bethlehem,’ `Orpheus and Eurydice,’ ‘ Jonathan’s Token to David,’ `Electra at the Tomb of Agamemnon,’ `The Daphnephoria,”Venus disrobing for the Bath,’ and the like, are amongst the most refined although the most frigid creations of contemporary English art.

( Originally Published 1908 )

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