1895 Frederic Leighton's Last Academy
Neither the artist himself nor the Royal Academy critics could have known that the Exhibition of 1895 would be the last in the lifetime of Sir Frederic Leighton, PRA (President of the Royal Academy).1 His letters show that he hoped to live longer, despite the agonising attacks of angina that he had been suffering since the previous autumn, principally because he still wanted to paint: after a temporary recovery, he exclaimed “Would it not have been a pity if I had had to die just before I was going to paint better!”2
Yet the thought, poignant in retrospect, suggests that the artist was reflecting on his own career. That might be attributed to his impending death, but as President he would also have been very much aware of the profound changes in the art world, at the Academy and around the globe, as the century neared its end. Each of his six contributions of 1895 represented a single female figure abstracted from a narrative context. Perhaps the ailing artist found the scale of a single-figure canvas easier to manage.3 However, the paintings also show him thinking again about the picture-type that he had played a crucial role in pioneering as long ago as 1859. At the Academy Exhibition that year, Leighton’s three paintings of a single female figure, based on the striking Italian model Nanna Risi, had captured the imagination of critics and artists, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who immediately began his own (now more famous) series of single female figures with the sensual Bocca Baciata (1859). Thirty-five years later, at exhibitions around the world, the influence of that picture-type could be seen everywhere, reinterpreted and redeployed in all manner of “isms”—compelling paintings of single figures, often (thought not always) female, in the modes of Symbolism, Secessionism, Impressionism, Divisonism, proto-Expressionism, and many more; in the twentieth century, the type would undergo further vicissitudes.4 The picture-type must be accounted as one of the most influential contributions ever made to the wider history of art by British artists.
Perhaps Leighton’s last paintings of single female figures brought out something that had been latent all along: the relationship of the picture-type to the longer tradition of female portraiture—another of the most influential British contributions to the history of art.5 One of his contributions of 1895, The Maid with the Golden Hair, was described as specially “English” in reviews. No doubt that was due in part to the figure’s fair colouring, but perhaps also to her action: reading a book, a staple composition of the British portrait tradition, as appropriate for so literary a nation.
It was another of Leighton’s contributions, however, that meditated most deeply on the British portrait tradition, particularly as it has been theorised for the Academy by Joshua Reynolds: ’Twixt Hope and Fear (Fig. 1). Leighton had always been highly conscious of his role as a successor to the line of PRAs, and particularly to the first President; his personal library included multiple editions of Reynolds’ writings as well as Reynolds’ own, autographed copies of Horace’s Poems and Pascal’s Pensées. 6 If Leighton’s Academy Addresses can be read as theoretical and historical reflections on Reynolds’ Discourses, ’Twixt Hope and Fear explores the first President’s visual legacy. In formal terms, the enthroned figure, its flesh tints emerging resplendent from an array of deep browns, immediately recalls Reynolds’ celebrated Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse (ca. 1783–1784), from which Leighton also borrows the subject matter, characteristically draining it of specific narrative and distilling its essence. Like Reynolds, Leighton dismisses the moralising overtones of the traditional subject, the Choice of Hercules, when he feminises it. Perhaps his new allegory, the choice between hope and fear, is peculiarly appropriate to a world anticipating the turn of the century, and with it the imminent change of artistic generations as the great figures of Victorian art neared their deaths.
Leighton takes his ingredients—hues and tonal contrasts—from Reynolds and adapts them to the new single-figure type. The frontal presentation of the face, flat to the picture plane, and the riveting eyes are of the generation of 1859, while the plumb line down the nose to the perpendicular arm, hanging like a pendulum, represents Leighton’s distinctive classicism. Leighton also draws on the pose of another Reynolds, Mrs Abington as “Miss Prue” (1771), substituting a suitably ancient chair for Reynolds’ Chippendale one. In the forthright gaze, too, he acknowledges a debt to his predecessor. Perhaps this reveals an unsuspected art-historical lineage from eighteenth-century portraiture through the Rossettian and Leightonesque figure type to the powerful single figures of modernism.
The massive arm also recalls the two Presidents’ shared esteem for Michelangelo, a signal feature of British art history in abrupt contrast to the French love for Raphael. Michelangelo is a key point of reference, too, in the painting of 1895 that has become Leighton’s signature image: Flaming June (Fig. 2), an ingenious and curiously cross-gendered amalgam of Michelangelo’s Night, his lost Leda, and the Ignudi of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The critics of 1895 acknowledged the painting’s éclat, and particularly the complexity of its seemingly endless panoply of orange hues in rippling array, but they did not necessarily mark it as Leighton’s masterwork; for many, the more orthodox classicism of Lachrymae, a full-length figure in sombre drapery mourning at a Doric funerary column, made it the more important work. The special fame of Flaming June came a century later. After a period between 1930 and 1960, when it disappeared from public view, its rise from obscurity to worldwide celebrity has made it perhaps the most potent symbol of the renewed fortunes of Victorian art in our own generation.
He did not become “Lord Leighton”, Baron Leighton of Stretton, until the New Year’s Honours list was published in the month he died, in January 1896. For more on the last year of Leighton’s life and his contribution of 1895, see Flaming June: The Making of an Icon, exhibition catalogue (London: Leighton House Museum, 2016).↩︎
Mrs Russell Barrington, The Life, Letters and Work of Frederic Leighton, 2 vols (London: George Allen, 1906), Vol. 2, 334.↩︎
It should be noted, however, that in January 1895, he completed and installed a mural painting measuring nearly 5.5 x 3.6 metres, Phoenicians Bartering with Ancient Britons, at the Royal Exchange in the City.↩︎
For a wide-ranging selection, see Robert Rosenblum et al., 1900: Art at the Crossroads, exhibition catalogue (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2000), especially 130–155 and 218–233.↩︎
The type owed much to the new art-historical consciousness of the nineteenth century, including a special interest in Venetian Renaissance paintings of single female figures that may, or may not, be categorisable as portraits.↩︎
Catalogue of the Valuable Library of the Right Honourable Lord Leighton of Stretton, Messrs Christie, Manson and Woods, sold 15–16 July 1896, lots 56, 84, 92–93, and 194.↩︎
Thematic categories: Discourses, female iconography, figure drawing and painting, influence of other artists, innovative art techniques, neoclassicism, portraits, Presidents of the Royal Academy, single figure painting, women as subjects