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1896 Leighton's Farewell

After Frederic Leighton passed away on 25 January 1896, his presence haunted the Summer Exhibition of that year. Royal Academy of Art guidelines dictated that as a recently deceased member of the Academy, Leighton could only be represented by a single work. His unfinished painting, Clytie, was assigned a prominent place: the north wall of large Gallery III (Fig. 1). This placement provoked The Times’ critic to recall those paintings by the former president that had formerly occupied “that central place”, including Captive Andromache (ca. 1888) and The Garden of the Hesperides (1891).1 That Leighton’s painting could trigger such memories is a reminder of how well-versed viewers experienced serial exhibitions, bringing traces of the past into the present, and comparing present examples with absent compatriots—an exercise encouraged by the annual use of the same space.

Explore the 1896 catalogue

The Times’ reviewer positioned Clytie as the culmination of the painter’s career, a mark of esteem, and one of his “most important and beautiful of his achievements”, despite its unfinished state.2 This opinion was shared amongst critics: F.G. Stephens, writing for The Athenaeum, announced that: “Technically speaking, ‘Clytie’ fairly represents Leighton at his best”,3 and The Art Journal described the canvas as:

a worthy example of a great artist, a piece of work that he might well have been content to know would remain to bear evidence to the manner in which his powers of paintings and his keen sense of all that is beautiful in Art had endured to the last.4

Clytie depicts an episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (IV), when the water nymph Clytie seeks to win back Helios, the sun god, who has forsaken her for princess Leucothoë. Clytie’s efforts thwarted, she sits and gazes at the sun for nine days, refusing food and drink until she is transformed into a sun-seeking heliotrope. Leighton explained his choice of subject, shortly before his death, to the commercial gallery the Fine Art Society, which was preparing to make a print after the painting: “I have shown the goddess in adoration before the setting sun whose last rays are permeating her whole being. With upraised arms she is entreating her beloved one not to forsake her.”5

Clytie is shown in profile, kneeling with her long hair cascading down her back. According to Ovid, she had stripped herself of clothing in her period of intensified longing, but Leighton depicted her wrapped in dark drapery with a white under-blouse. Another dark drapery spills around her on the marble flooring, a contrasting mirror to the white and gold-tinted clouds that swirl in the sky above the figure and help to draw attention to her outstretched arms and upward-turned face soaking in the sun’s remaining rays as it prepares to set. The painter was quite proud of the sky, painted with broad strokes, reporting to the Fine Art Society that: “[William Quiller] Orchardson has been so good to say that I have never done anything finer than the sky.”6 To Clytie’s right is a small pedestal holding an abundant still life of fruit and a tall fluted column. Leighton, as he explained in his interview with the Fine Art Society, intended these forms as “a small altar, upon which is an offering of fruit, and upon the pillar beyond it I shall show the feet of a statue of Apollo.”7

As the critic Stephens noted, the subject was not new to the artist. Leighton had painted another version, exhibited in the 1892 Academy Summer Exhibition, which emphasised the landscape and the clouds sweeping up and over the horizon, with a diminutive Clytie depicted in the lower right corner. At that moment, the artist claimed to have already been mulling over the subject for fifteen years.8 His later version, with its greater focus on the female figure, demanded close attention to the pose of his model, Dorothy Dene, whom he studied over several drawings.9 In a profile study of her face and throat, executed on grey-brown paper, the black chalk line, set off by the hatching of white chalk, emphasises the contours of the model’s silhouetted form and reveals how Leighton used the physical form to communicate Clytie’s vulnerability and desperate longing (Fig. 2). Clytie, in the version exhibited in 1896, joins the lineage of sexually desiring female figures in Victorian art, such as John Everett Millais’ Mariana (1851) and John Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott (1888).10

While critics such as Stephens attended to the “raptures of her face and attitude” as well as the landscape and lighting effects of the painting,11 they also read the work in the context of the artist’s life and death. Such a gesture was in keeping with practices encouraged by the rise of the genre of artists’ biographies over the last quarter of the nineteenth century “on a mass scale not experienced before” as art historian Julie Codell has explained.12 The Art Journal, for example, predicted that viewers, aware of the artist’s recent passing, would find the subject:

saddening in its suggestion of yearning for life, its hint of the craving that is in us all for light; it is pathetic to see this passionate appeal made by a man to whom had come the last moment of his waning vitality.13

This equation between light, life, and creativity throws into further relief the critic’s accusation, made earlier in the review, that the Summer Exhibition of 1896, “has a most frost-bitten air. It is nipped and stunted, lacking in a promising show of well-ripened fruit, and boasting no satisfactory proportion between its bushels of success and its acres of effort.”14

Biographical readings of Clytie were subsequently reinforced by its inclusion in Leighton’s funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral. As Mrs Russell Barrington described in her biography of the artist, “the six pictures of the next year looked down on the coffin … In the centre, above the head [of the artist], the sun-loving ‘Clytie’ stretched out her arms, bidding a passionate farewell to her god.”15

  1. “The Royal Academy: First Notice”, The Times, 2 May 1896, 15.↩︎

  2. “The Royal Academy: First Notice”, The Times, 2 May 1896, 15.↩︎

  3. “Fine Arts, The Royal Academy (First Notice)”, The Athenaeum 3575, 2 May 1896, 587.↩︎

  4. “The Royal Academy”, The Art Journal 56, new series (June 1896): 182.↩︎

  5. “The Royal Academy: First Notice”, The Times, 2 May 1896, 15.↩︎

  6. “The Royal Academy: First Notice”, The Times, 2 May 1896, 15.↩︎

  7. Quoted in “The Royal Academy: First Notice”, The Times, 2 May 1896, 15.↩︎

  8. Andrew Wilton and Robert Upstone (eds), The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones, & Watts: Symbolism in Britain, 1860–1910 (London: Tate Gallery Publishing, 1997), 175. See also, Christopher Newall, “Clytie, Frederic Leighton 1830–1896”, in Stephen Jones, Christopher Newall, et al. (eds), Frederic, Lord Leighton: Eminent Victorian Artist (London: Royal Academy of Arts with Harry N. Abrams, 1996), 240.↩︎

  9. Philippa Martin and Alison Smith, et al., A Victorian Master: Drawings by Frederic, Lord Leighton (London: Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, 2006), 106–111.↩︎

  10. Rosemary Barrow, “Victorian Clytie”, The Victorian Web, (accessed 3 June 2017).↩︎

  11. Stephens, “Fine Arts, The Royal Academy (First Notice)”, The Athenaeum.↩︎

  12. Julie Codell, The Victorian Artist, Artists’ Lifewritings in Britain, ca. 1870–1910 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 2.↩︎

  13. “The Royal Academy”, The Art Journal 56, new series (June 1896): 182.↩︎

  14. “The Royal Academy”, The Art Journal 56, new series (June 1896): 166.↩︎

  15. Mrs Russell Barrington, The Life, Letters and Work of Frederic Baron Leighton of Stretton (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1906), Vol. 2, 336.↩︎

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Explore the 1896 catalogue