WHEN the late Lord Leighton was about eighteen years old, he painted a picture of Cimabue finding Giotto at the moment when the young shepherd was busy drawing one of his flock with a sharp stone on a smooth slab of rock.
For both these two painters Leighton had a great admiration, and not long after the exhibition of the above-mentioned picture, he projected his “Cimabue’s Madonna carried in procession through the streets of Florence.” Leighton took the incident of the picture from Vasari, who says :
“Cimabue afterward painted the picture of the Virgin for the church of Santa Maria Novella, where it is suspended on high, between the chapel of the Rucellai family and that of Bardi, of Vernio: This picture is of larger size than any figure that had been painted down to those times ; and the angels surrounding it made it evident that, although Cimabue still retained the Greek manner, he was, nevertheless, gradually approaching the mode of outline and general method of modern times. Thus it happened that this work was an object of so much admiration to the people of that day they having then never seen anything better that it was carried in solemn procession, with the sound of trumpets and other festal demonstrations, from the house of Cimabue to the church, he himself being highly rewarded and honored for it.”
This was painted in Rome, where young Leighton was a favorite in the distinguished circle of his countrymen, which included Thackeray and the Brownings. Thackeray, who watched the progress of the ” Cimabue,” was so impressed by it that he said to Millais, ” My boy, I have met in Rome a versa-tile young dog, called Leighton, who will one of these days run you hard for the president ship.” This picture, the first one exhibited at the Royal Academy by Leighton, was shown there in 1855, and won instant success, Queen Victoria purchasing it for £600. George Aitchison, Leighton’s old friend, and the architect of his beautiful house, says that the young painter, always generous, gave commissions to all of his poor artist friends in Rome with the money received for the ” Cimabue.”
Ruskin’s criticism of the picture is of interest. He wrote : “This is a very important and very beautiful picture. It has both sincerity and grace, and is painted on the purest principles of Venetian art, that is to say, on the calm acceptance of the whole of nature, small and great, as, in its place, de-serving of faithful rendering. The great secret of the Venetians was their simplicity. They were great colorists, not because they had peculiar secrets about oil and color, but because when they saw a thing red they painted it red, and when they saw it distinctly they painted it distinctly. In all Paul Veronese’s pictures the lace borders of the table-cloths or fringes of the dresses are painted with just as much care as the faces of the principal figures ; and the reader may rest assured that in all great art it is so. Everything in it is done as well as it can be done. Thus, in the picture before us, in the background is the church of San Miniato, strictly accurate in detail ; on the top of the wall are oleanders and pinks, as carefully painted as the church; the architecture of the shrine on the wall is well studied from thirteenth-century Gothic, and painted with as much care as the pinks ; the dresses of the figures, very beautifully designed, are painted with as much care as the faces ; that is to say, all things throughout with as much care as the painter could bestow. The painting before us has been objected to because it seems broken to bits. Precisely the same objection would hold, and in very nearly the same degree, against the best work of the Venetians. All faithful colorists’ work in figure-painting has a look of sharp separation between part and part. Although, however, in common with all other work of its class, it is marked by these sharp divisions, there is no confusion in its arrangement. The principal figure is nobly principal, not by extraordinary light, but by its own pure whiteness, and both the master and young Giotto attract full regard by distinction of form and face. The features of the boy are carefully studied, and are, indeed, what, from the existing portraits of him, we know those of Giotto must have been in his youth.
“The background of Cimabue’s’ Madonna’ represents the hills of Florence, and in front of them stretches a wall, which serves to throw into relief the procession passing be-fore it. In the left-hand corner (as we look at it) is a group of Florentines of all ages, dressed in colors sufficiently subdued not to distract the eye from the central and important part of the picture. Behind them walks Cimabue himself, clad in white, with a wreath surmounting the curious kind of white peaked cap then worn, and leading by the hand his pupil Giotto, who, we cannot help thinking, must have looked very young for his years. The boy, with a tight-fitting garment of dark purple, does not seem to appreciate the post of honor that he holds, for he is hanging back, as if he would fain join some kindred spirits in the crowd, and go to play. Behind comes what we may call the bier, covered in white, with a beautifully painted piece of color, of which red is the predominating hue, to the front. This is added to break the line between the white of the bier and the dress of Cimabue. Above is the picture of the Madonna, seen, of course, sideways, or in profile, by the spectator, but the perspective and treatment Of which is absolutely perfect; it hangs a little forward from a gold frame, and has a gold background of its own. On this is painted the Virgin in blue, holding in her lap the Child, who is in red. From the size of the picture, the angels, who made such an impression on the Florentines, are not visible. The picture is kept in its place by men, who hold the cords attached to it. The man in the front nearest Giotto is clad in cream tints, which blend, on the one hand, into the white of Cimabue, and on the other into the splendid saffron robes of the man next him, whose head is covered with drapery of a deeper shade of orange. The third man, immediately to the front of the bier, is in yellowy red. A little more in the foreground stand some boys, who always form the indispensable part of every procession, and near them a man in a gorgeous scarlet robe, with a loose drapery of purple over it. . . . The Madonna is followed by a band of contemporary artists, anxious to do honor to the greatest among them. Among these are Simone Memmi, Gaddo Gaddi, Nicola Pisano, Buffalmacco, and Arnolfo di Lapo. Between them and the wall under the hills is the Gonfaloniere of Florence, mounted on a very finely painted gray horse, and clothed in blue and scarlet, with an ermine tippet over his shoulders ; red vines cluster the wall above over his head, and the glow of color about all this part of the picture contrasts strongly with the quiet gray figure of Dante leaning against a tree, and looking on with the sardonic and wondering gaze of the man who had been in hell.”
Sir Frederic (afterward Lord) Leighton died in the first month of 1896, aged sixty-five years, having been president of the Royal Academy since 1878, and was succeeded in that office by Millais. One of the most industrious of painters, Leighton left behind him a long list of works, from among which may be selected for mention, ” Dante Going Forth into Exile,” “The Death of Brunelleschi,” ” Orpheus and Eurydice,” ” Wedded ” (in the Art Gallery at Sydney, N. S. W.), ” Summer Moon,” ” Hercules Wrestling with Death for the Body of Alcestis,” ” The Daphnephoria,” “Elijah in the Wilderness” (owned by the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) ; ” Phryne at Eleusis,” “Captive Andromache,” “Cymon and Iphigenia,” “Perseus and Andromeda,” “The Garden of the Hesperides,” and “The Bath of Psyche.” The last-named picture belongs to the British nation, as does also the artist’s statue of “The Athlete Wrestling with a Python.” Leigh-ton’s frescoes include “The Arts of Peace” and “The Arts of War,” at the South Kensington Museum ; ” Phoenicians Bartering with Ancient Britons,” in the Royal Ex-change ; and the decorations of the music-room .in the house of Mr. Henry G. Marquand in New York.