DESCRIPTIONS OF THE PLATES
‘HERAKLES WRESTLING WITH DEATH FOR THE BODY OF ALCESTIS’ PLATE I
THE large canvas of Herakles, or, as the Romans denote him, Hercules, wrestling with Death for the body of the fair Alcestis, was one of Lord Leighton’s most important canvases. The unusual feeling shown in this picture is said to have been occasioned by the fact that his friend Mrs. Sartoris lay very ill at about the time the picture was painted. In the center of the canvas under the lee of the trunks of two enormous cypresses, stretched on a bier, lies the beautiful body of Alcestis, clothed in flowing white robes and with a wreath of bay-leaves crowning her auburn hair, while at her feet the muscular, bronzed figure of Herakles is engaged in a fierce struggle with Death, a repulsive figure, clad in a thin gray drapery with greenish flesh and ball-less eyes. Against the background of the deep blue AEgean Sea, beyond which rise the purple mountains of the opposite coast tinged with sunset hues, an old man is restraining a half nude figure of a woman frantic with fear at the struggle going on. At the head of the bier are huddled together a number of women clothed in various shades of deep red, purple, and gray.
Mr. A. G. Temple writes of this picture: “The exalted Greek ideal of form never before found itself so pictured on canvas. The verse of Browning inspired him (Leighton) to the `Orpheus and Eurydice;’ but seven years later the poet himself was inspired towards the production of that truly beautiful poem `Balaustion’s Adventure’ by the masterly painting of `Herakles wrest-ling with Death for the Body of Alcestis.’ He was forty when he painted this.
There slept a silent palace in the sun, With plains adjacent and Thessalian peace,’
Thus the poem opens; arriving at this palace, Herakles hears of the grief for the dead Alcestis, and goes to her tomb, where he encounters Death and compels him to give back his prey. This splendid canvas, with one or two others of its kind, seems to stand apart from his other work, not only in the intensity of its feeling, but in its manner of work: there is less of the deliberate and assured touch, and more of the striving to attain; the work has a solidity, whether or no secured by this effort to attain matters not, the effect arrived at is that of substantial richness in keeping with the august dignity of the theme. If any one work more than another rooted more firmly Leighton’s reputation, it was this, and by many it is thought, for its collective merits, not to have been surpassed by any subsequent production. There is a spontaneity in its action which cannot be readily pointed to in any other example. The very airs of Thessaly seem coming from the blue AEgean to the frightened bearers of the beauteous burden. All that Leighton had to go upon was a passage such as this from Euripides: `Yea, I will go and lie in wait for Death, the king of souls departed, with the dusky robes, and methinks I shall find him hard by the grave drinking the sacrificial wine. And if I can seize him by this ambush, springing from my lair, and throw my arms in circle round him, none shall snatch his panting body from my grasp till he give back the woman to me.’ From this evolved his idea of the scene; fear, beauty, strength, in presence of the deadly foe, there was the drama.
“In an early design for this work there were no `women wailers in a corner crouched,’ as Browning writes; but what an accession of strength to the composition, and loveliness in themselves, these finely expressed forms ‘neath manifold crease of red and purple bring into the work.”
The picture belongs to Sir Bernhard Samuelson, who has most generously loaned it for exhibition on many occasions, at one time it having been sent as far away as Australia. It was painted in 1871, and measures four and a half feet high by a little more than eight and a half feet long.
‘CYMON AND IPHIGENIA’ PLATE II
` CYMON AND IPHIGENIA’ was the most important picture that Leighton exhibited at the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1884. Mr. Rhys writes of it: ” `A more original effect of light and color, used in the broad, true, and ideal treatment of lovely forms,’ said a French critic, `we do not remember to have seen at the Academy, than that produced by the “Cymon and Iphigenia.” ‘ Engravings and other reproductions of the picture have made its design, at any rate, almost as familiar now as Boccaccio’s tale itself. There are some divergences, however, in the two versions. Boccaccio’s tale is a tale of spring; Sir Frederic, the better to carry out his conception of the drowsy desuetude of sleep, and of that sense of pleasant but absolute weariness which one associates with the season of hot days and short nights, has changed the spring into that riper summer-time which is on the verge of autumn; and that hour of late sunset which is on the verge of night. Under its rich glow lies the sleeping Iphigenia, draped in folds upon folds of white, and her attendants; while Cymon, who is as unlike the boor of tradition as Spenser’s Colin Clout is unlike the ordinary Cumbrian herdsman, stands hard-by, wondering, pensively wrapt in so exquisite a vision. Altogether, a great presentment of an immortal idyll; so treated, indeed, that it becomes much more than a mere reading of Boccaccio, and gives an ideal picture of Sleep itself, that Sleep which so many artists and poets have tried at one time or another to render.” While another critic, more discriminating, perhaps, calls the picture “sugary” and “mawkish in sentiment.” The canvas measures five feet nine inches by ten feet nine inches.
‘BATH OF PSYCHE’ PLATE III
HERE we see the figure of the fair Psyche laying off her last diaphanous H white garments as she stands on the edge of the luxurious marble bath. A strong contrast to her pearly flesh-tints is given by the brilliant yellow drapery that she has already thrown down and which dips into the water. Be-hind her hangs a purple curtain, the plinths and capitals of the marble columns are gilded, while a brazen jar adds another strong note to the color-scheme. This picture was an enlargement of a panel once painted by Leighton for his friend Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, at the latter’s request, for a screen he was forming with panels painted by his artist friends. When given the dimensions for the original Leighton exclaimed at the difficulty of painting a picture upon a knife-blade, and in order to get the desired proportions caused the lower part of Psyche’s figure to be reflected in the water. In this enlargement he somewhat curtailed the length of the reflection. Mrs. Russell Barrington, one of Leighton’s latest biographers, feels that in the modeling of this torso and in that of the head of `Neruccia’ the artist reaches the zenith of his powers as a draftsman.
The picture as we have it here was exhibited first in 189o, and measures six feet three inches by two feet.
‘THE MUSIC LESSON’ PLATE IV
” NOT indeed the most elevated in thought,” writes Cosmo Monkhouse, “but perhaps the most perfect of his pictures is `The Music Lesson,’ in which a lovely little girl is seated on her lovely young mother’s lap, learning to play the lute. It is a dream of the purest and tenderest affection, a collection of dainty and exquisite things, arranged with inimitable grace, and executed with a skill which leaves little to desire.”
And Mr. Ernest Rhys writes of the same picture: “To realize the full charm of this picture one must see the original, for much depends upon the beauty of its coloring. Imagine a classical marble hall, marble floor, marble walls, in black and white, and red deep red marble pillars; and sitting there, sumptuously attired, but bare-footed, two fair-haired girls, who serve for pupil and music-mistress. The elder is showing the younger how to finger a lyre, of exquisite design and finish, and the expression on their faces is charmingly true, while the colors that they contribute to the composition the pale blue of the child’s dress, the pale flesh-tints, the pale yellow hair, and the white and gold of the elder girl’s loose robe, and the rich auburn of her hair are most harmonious. A bit of scarlet pomegranate blossom, lying on the marble ground, gives the last high note of color to the picture.”
The canvas dates from 1877, and its dimensions are nearly three feet square.
‘PORTRAIT OF SIR RICHARD BURTON’ PLATE V
IN addition to the large picture of `The Daphnephoria,’ the portrait of Sir Richard Burton, then British consul at Trieste, was also exhibited at the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1876. This life-size bust in profile of the famous Orientalist vies with Leighton’s own portrait in being the best piece of work in that line that the artist ever painted. The subject must have inspired Leighton more than usual, for it is painted with much more vigor and spontaneity than is customary with him, and the technique shows greater breadth in handling and less minute finish.
“There was nothing of the ideal about Richard Burton,” writes Mr. Edgecumbe Staley. “He was a forceful personality, with no beauty of feature. Leighton has attempted no pose, but an easy, natural, wide-awake expression glances upwards in profile. The skin is tanned; the hair rather unkempt is brown. The black coat and dark brown red-spotted tie further project the head and features by sharp contrast. The grays and browns are played upon by a sunny light, and the effect is rich and animated.”
In accordance with the expressed desire of Sir Richard Burton, who died in 1890, this portrait was given to the National Portrait Gallery by his sisters in ‘896, when the collection had found a permanent home. It measures twenty-three and a half by nineteen and a half inches.
‘CAPTIVE ANDROMACHE’ PLATE VI
MR. TEMPLE writes of this picture: “`Captive Andromache’ was a composition of formidable difficulties, and may be counted among his greatest achievements. After the death of Hector, Andromache was taken captive to Argos, where she was subjected to the scornful taunts of those among whom she went to draw water at the Hyperion well. In the picture she stands waiting, her jar at her feet, while others, almost as beautiful as she, are thronging the well. More than twenty figures are in the picture, equal care being shown in the portrayal of each, a proud display of his power of delineating form and of his sense of the dignity of color. For many years he dwelt on this work. The city of Liverpool at one time entertained its purchase, but it was ultimately secured by Manchester.”
Another critic, less enthusiastic, points to the fact that there are six distinct groups in the picture; that Andromache, contrary to the best canons of art, divides the picture into two nearly equal halves; and that in places the color is discordant; that the artist has not seen this composition of figures grouped together thus in real life, but has concocted it in his studio.
And Richard Muther writes: “Perhaps the `Captive Andromache’ of i888 is the quintessence of what he arrived at. The background is the court of an ancient palace, where female slaves are gathered together fetching water. In the center of the stage, as the leading actress, stands Andromache, who has placed her pitcher on the ground before her, and waits with dignity until the slaves have finished their work. This business of water-drawing has given Leighton an opportunity for combining an assemblage of beautiful poses. The widow of Hector expresses a queenly sorrow with decorum, while the amphora-bearers are standing or walking hither and thither in the manner demanded by the pictures upon Grecian vases, but without that sureness of line which comes of the real observation of life. In its dignity of style, in the noble composition and purity of the lines which circumscribe the forms with so much distinction and in so impersonal a manner, the picture is an arid and measured work, cold as marble and smooth as porcelain.” The canvas measures six feet four inches by thirteen feet four inches.
‘LACHRYMAE’ PLATE VII
THIS single statuesque figure in full length, of which Leighton painted many during his lifetime, under such titles as `Helen of Troy,’ ` Electra at the Tomb of Agamemnon,’ ‘Nausicaa,’ and many others, was, with `Flaming June,’ one of the two pictures exhibited for the last time at the Royal Academy, in 1895, the spring before the artist died. The picture seems almost prophetic of his death, as the female figure in her somber blue-black draperies leaning against a fluted column, supporting a mortuary urn wreathed with laurel, symbolizes `Tears’ and seems as if designed for a funeral monument. Mr. Edgecumbe Staley writes: “The time of day is evening, with a harsh, coppery sunset. In the background are some solemn-looking cypress-trees, from a very early study in water-color done at Florence in 1854.”
This canvas was purchased for the Wolfe Collection of the Metropolitan Museum in 1896. It measures five feet two inches high by about two feet wide.
‘GREEK GIRLS PLAYING AT BALL’ PLATE VIII
THIS picture is one of four pictures that the artist exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1889. Mr. Edgecumbe Staley has somewhat extravagantly praised this picture, and the critic whom he quotes and with whom he disagrees seems to have formed a more just estimate of the canvas than he. Mr. Staley writes: “Of `Greek Girls playing at Ball’ one is not sure whether to admire most the landscape and sea in front of the town or the strikingly posed and draped girls. Of course, we are in Greece and on the shores of one of her most beautiful islands Rhodes. The sea is sapphire blue, reflecting the azure sky with its flecking cloudlets, whilst the brilliant green of laurel and myrtle offers a splendid contrast to the dazzling white marble houses and housetops. This is one of Leighton’s best landscapes. The two girls one fair, one dark – are drawn and painted with extraordinary freedom. Their movements are rapid and strained, in vigor quite Michael Angelesque. Indeed, some critics said, `The postures are impossible and hideous. . . No draperies under any circumstances of wind or rough play could assume such folds.’ This is a typical example of the shallow dogmatism that brings art criticism into deserved contempt with painters.
“Leighton has again, as in `Daedalus and Icarus,’ taken us up on to the housetop, which is white and bare, save only for some tossed-about drapery and, of course, a pomegranate or two.
“The contours of the girls are clearly indicated under their thin and clinging garments they are very beautiful in proportion and development, whilst the flesh-tints are rich and clear. There is something of Correggio about them. Their flowing draperies have caught the hurrying wind. In order to secure the true effect of light and shade in the drapery, Leighton arranged cotton-wool on the floor of his studio in the particular form he desired, and then he cast the drapery over the heap and let it settle as it would, and painted what he saw.”
The dimensions of this canvas are three feet nine inches by six feet four inches.
‘AND THE SEA GAVE UP THE DEAD WHICH WERE IN IT’ PLATE IX
THE cartoon for this circular panel was executed many years before the finished picture. It was the only one completed of eight which were proposed as a decoration in mosaic for the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The design was made into a finished picture when Sir Henry Tate asked the artist for a picture to represent himself in the National Gallery of British Art, familiarly known as the Tate Gallery. Leighton was already represented in the Chantrey Bequest, which formed the basis of the collection, by the `Bath of Psyche’ and the bronze figure entitled `An Athlete struggling with a Python.’ He therefore chose a subject of an entirely different character in response to Sir Henry Tate’s request.
Mr. Edward T. Cook, in his `Handbook to the Tate Gallery,’ writes that: “Lord Leighton regarded the present picture as the best thing in its kind that he had ever done, and as that by which he wished to be represented to and judged by posterity.” Mr. Cook, furthermore, calls this picture “an attempt to realize upon canvas a portion of the tremendous picture of the Last
Judgment drawn in `The Revelation’ (Ch. XX): “‘And I saw a great white throne, and Him that sat on it, from Whose face the earth and the heavens fled away; and there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them; and they were judged every man according to their works.’ “The man in the center of the composition, the only living being of the group, supports with his right arm his wife, while his left clasps his child, a boy who clings with filial affection to his side. The three are being slowly drawn upwards by some unseen, mysterious, all-compelling force from the depths of an inky and turbulent sea. The man’s eye is fixed upon the heavens, which are strangely troubled and filled with an unnatural light. Occupied with thoughts of his earthly career, in fear tempered with hope, he gazes with awe upon the great white throne. His wife still sleeps the sleep of death; but a certain warmth of color in the limb of the half-naked boy indicates his approaching return to existence. At the foot of this central group is a half-risen corpse, whose arms are folded across the breast, and who is still clad in the garments in which he was committed to the deep. In the background, kings and men of all estate `the dead, small and great’ are rising to stand before God.”
This canvas was finished in 189z, and measures seven feet nine inches in diameter.
‘THE DAPHNEPHORIA’ PLATE X
` THE DAPHNEPHORIA’ was Leighton’s second attempt at depicting a procession, though the figures, unlike those in `Cimabue’s Madonna carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence,’ are here keeping time to a choral song as they march. The latter picture was the début of his youth; the original of our plate was painted in 1876, twenty-one years later, when the artist was in the full height of his powers. The picture represents a religious procession which took place at Thebes every ninth year to celebrate the victory of the Thebans over the AEolians at Arne. It is headed by a standard-bearer draped in reddish purple, carrying a heavy standard hung with balls and crowns symbolic of the sun, moon, and stars. He is followed by a youthful priest, the “Daphnephoros,” clad in a flowing robe of white and gold and bearing the laurel-branch, whence came the name of the procession. Next came three lads in red, blue, and green draperies, bearing pieces of armor the one in the center a gilded cuirass with puffings of pale pink silk. These last seem to be halting, whilst the leader of the chorus, a splendidly modeled figure of a young man with gold-embroidered white draperies, holds a golden lyre in his left hand and beats time with his right for the band of chanting young Theban maidens who advance carrying laurel-branches. The first row is composed of five little girls clad in pale shades of purple, blue and pink, followed by two rows of older girls, and these in turn by boys with cymbals. The procession is not without spectators; in the foreground on the left are two young girls in pale and dark blue drawing water, while seated on the wall against a distant landscape are a mother and daughter.
Mrs. Russell Barrington writes of it: “From some points of view ‘The Daphnephoria’ is Leighton’s greatest achievement. The difficulties he surmounted successfully in the work were of a character with which few English artists could cope at all. The size of the canvas alone would certainly have insisted on ten years’ devotion to it from most modern artist-workmen. The extreme breadth of the arrangement of the masses, united with great beauty of line and form in the detail; the sense of the moving of a procession swinging along to the rhythmic phrase of chanted music; the brilliant light of Greece, striking on the fine surface of the marble platform along which the procession is moving and on the town below, which it has left behind, contrasting with the deep shadowed cypress grove rising as background to the figures; all this is more than masterly: it is convincing. It is probably quite unlike what took place at Thebes every ninth year; but Art is not Archaeology. The written account of what took place fired Leighton’s imagination to create a scene in which he treated the Greek function as the text; the wonderful light and the fineness of Greek atmosphere as the tone; the processional majesty and grace of movement as the action. The element of beauty which the record suggested to him was the truth of the scene to Leighton, and he has recorded the essence of it in an extraordinarily original work.”
This canvas was painted originally for Mr. Stewart Hodgson, who paid fifteen hundred pounds ($7,500) for it in 1876. It was resold in 1892 to Mr. George McCulloch for three thousand seven hundred and fifty guineas (about $18,750). It measures seven feet five inches high by seventeen feet long.
( Originally Published 1908 )
Frederic Lord Leighton:Frederic Lord LeightonThe Art Of LeightonThe Works Of Lord LeightonList Of The Principal Works By Lord Leighton