Perhaps owing to the fact that he travelled extensively in his youth, he spoke four
languages. Frederic was a very open-minded person who accepted people of all walks of life and
developed quite forward-thinking, some would say modern, views. In Victorian England, at the
height of the Empire, this was not popular, consequently he was initially received poorly by society
and his contemporaries. However, when Queen Victoria herself bought one of his paintings in 1855,
his career as an artist was assured. Leighton’s artistic career spanned over 40 years, accordingly, the
art world has been left a vast collection of his works to treasure.
The Training of a Master
Leighton was very self-effacing about his art work. He did not consider himself a master or a
profound talent. However, history would disagree. Frederic's gifts were detected early and by the
age of 15 he had studied at several renowned academies of art throughout Europe. Doubtless it is
Leighton’s early exposure to the sights of Florence, Rome and Paris to name only a few, that
informed his later expansive and vibrant works. However, it was in Munich, under the tutelage of
Eduard von Steinle, that Frederic truly began to develop his gifts.
Von Steinle was a shining light in
the German “Nazarene Movement” which promoted the true spirituality of Christian art and his own
work was romantic and beautiful. It is clear that Leighton was profoundly influenced by von Steinle’s
style during his time as a student. Moreover, even though they only worked together for three
years, their friendship lasted until Steinle’s death in 1886. His whole life, Frederic referred to Steinle
as his master, acknowledging his great respect for the man and his work.
The Pre-Raphaelite Fraternity and Other Influences
Leighton is said to have been a very affable man with a relaxed manner, and as such he easily and
readily "acquired" influential artist friends and acquaintances. On his extensive European travels, he
met and befriended many prominent people of the day; while he was in Rome, he developed a
friendship with poets Robert and Elizabeth Browning, writer William Makepiece Thackery and
Chopin’s famous mistress, George Sands. However, it was a few years later, while living in Paris, that
Frederic met the giants of aestheticism, specifically Jean-Francois Millet and Jean-August-Dominique
Ingres, that he truly began to find his feet artistically.
The new aestheticism which was growing in
the mid 1850's promoted beauty above everything, and it was this philosophy that inspired Leighton
throughout his career. It was at this time that Frederic produced his first painting of great note,
"Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna is Carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence" (1853-55).
It was so vast, that when it was displayed at the Royal Academy in 1855, there were very real
concerns that it may not fit the space. However, fit it did, and its magnificence promptly caught the
eye of Prince Albert. It is said that he was so enchanted that he made Queen Victoria buy it for him.
When Leighton returned to England in 1859, his natural ability to seek out the talent of the day led
him to The Hogarth Club where he met and fell in with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett
Millais. Rossetti and Millais were founders of the Pre-Raphaelite movement which was a group of
English artists, poets and writers who sought to revive the vivid colours, classical poses and exquisite
detail of the high renaissance painters. Although Frederic is considered a Pre-Raphaelite, he was not
an active member of the fraternity in a political sense. His painting style, using vibrant colours and
meticulous details, and his preferred classical choices of subject, such as Greek and Roman
mythology, meant that the movement was a natural fit for his artistic sensibilities even though he
allegedly had numerous heated debates on the subject with his friend Rossetti.
Leighton the Painter
Leighton's gifts were quite obvious to the art world of the Victorian era, however his love of all
things European often meant that his work had a foreign feel to it. The result of this cosmopolitan
choice of subject matter was that he was routinely snubbed by the English art critics. Even though
he received luke-warm critiques, Leighton was a huge hit with the art-loving public, and he was
never short of commissions.
An accomplished portrait painter, Frederic, in fact, painted very few of the aristocracy of the time.
His talent for portraiture was instead use in his rendering of his models. Even in his ensemble works
such as “The Garden of the Hesperides” (1891), each figure had perfectly rendered features and
expressions. This meticulous attention to detail along with the rich and glowing colours, became
Frederic’s signature. Never was his artistic style more beautifully rendered than in "Flaming June"
(1895). Widely considered his true masterpiece, “Flaming June” depicts a nymph sleeping in a chair
draped in a magnificent golden dress.
It is thought to have been modelled on Michelangelo's
famous sculpture “Night” (1526-1531) as this was a work particularly favoured by Leighton. Not only
does it display Frederic’s immense talent, but it indicated his continental influence which kept him
out of favour with British critics for so long.
Despite the art industry’s distain, Leighton had established a huge fan in Queen Victoria. As a result,
in 1868 he was commissioned to create two enormous frescos, “The Leighton Frescos” to adorn the
newly established Victoria and Albert Museum. Depicting the fruits of war and the fruits of peace,
they are both intellectually sophisticated and technically brilliant. To this day it remains quite a feat
to have created something so large while at the same time so detailed and relevant.
A renowned perfectionist and workaholic, Leighton often sketched for months before starting a
painting to ensure the perfect pose or composition. As a result of this compulsion, today we have a
clear understanding of how he worked as an artist and an appreciation for his profound work ethic.
The Changing Face of Sculpture
Leighton was also a remarkable sculptor. His earliest work of sculpture was for his friend Robert
Browning when he was commissioned to create a tomb for his beloved wife who died in Florence in
1855. It remains in the English Cemetery in Florence.
It was not until 1877 that Frederic revisited sculpture as a form of expression when he created
Athlete Wrestling a Python. It was received as a triumph. Leighton was hailed as the bringer of a
rebirth of sculpture and it initiated the New Sculpture movement which promoted the natural
form and movement so beautifully depicted in his work. In fact, his new work was so revered that
the following year he was made the president of the Royal Society and bestowed a knighthood by his
Leighton followed his success with The Sluggard in 1885. Also rendered in bronze this statue is
remarkable in its realistic form. The statue is a male nude stretching as though just wakened from a
sleep. Many have remarked on its sensual qualities leaving modern scholars to suggest there may
have been an intimacy between the artist and subject. Frederic's sculptures were, in essence, an extension of his painting in that he pursued rigorous preparation for them by way of copious drawings and sketches; which allows us to appreciate his process, even today.
There is little doubt that Frederic’s legacy is first and foremost his work, however, he was also
responsible for encouraging a great many budding artists at the studio he set up in his house. This
studio provided a place where all the young talent of the day could commune and find inspiration.
Ultimately, the most famous artist he directly influenced came a generation after him; John William
Waterhouse. Waterhouse's work and techniques can clearly be related to Leighton’s; indeed, many
suggest that if Frederic had painted Arthurian legend there would have been little space for
On Leighton's death he bequeathed his home in Holland Park and most of its contents to the city of
London. Today it is the Leighton House Museum and it exhibits much of Frederic's work as well as
many beautiful paintings and artefacts from his own collection. It is certainly worth a visit.