Monday, 1 June 2009

Victorian Venus: Flaming June by Frederic, Lord Leighton

Flaming June (1895)

Appropriately enough, given the month, we present Frederic, Lord Leighton's Flaming June, very much his most famous painting.

Frederic Leighton was born in Scarborough in 1830 to a well to do medical family (his grandfather had been the main physician to the Russian Royal Family in St Petersburg). Although concerned about his desire to be an artist, his family enabled him to carry out his studies by supporting him financially. His mother, who suffered from ill health and disliked the British climate, made sure that the family travelled extensively in Europe and North Africa in search of better weather and cures. Leighton spent very little time in Britain as a boy and was a fine linguist; learning French, German, Italian, Spanish and Romanian.

Self Portrait of Lord Leighton

All of his artistic training took place in Europe and, as a result, later in life, critics questioned his Britishness concluding that he must have foreign or Jewish blood (he was a great supporter of Jewish causes in Britain). He began his studies at the Berlin School of Art at the age of 12 (he lied about his age to get a place!) and then carried on his studies in Frankfurt and then at the Academia Delle Belle Arti in Florence. There he came to the attention of expatriate American sculptor Hiram Powers who helped to persuade his doubting family of the worth of his art. After Florence the Leightons returned to Frankfurt where Leighton studied at the St├Ądelsches Kunstinstitut. Students at the Institut painted scenes from German legends and this sparked an interest in mythological subjects which would become extant in the future.

In 1848 disturbances in Franfurt forced the Leightons to flee to Brussels and Paris before returning to Frankfurt the following year. Leighton didn't stay put for long, returning to London for a visit before travelling through Italy and settling in Rome, where his friends included Alfred Waterhouse, and William Makepeace Thackeray, who almost certainly based the character of Clive Newcome in his The Newcomes on Leighton.

At the age of 26 he was wondering where to submit his first major work for exhibition; London or Paris. He chose London, although he subsequently set up his studio in Paris. So in 1855 he sent his vast (seven feet high and 17 feet long!) canvas Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna is Carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence, to the Royal Academy Exhibition. His reputation was made when Prince Albert, on the first day of the exhibition, persuaded Queen Victoria to buy it for 600 guineas.

He was unable to follow up this success, at least in London, and his Academy submission the following year, The Triumph of Music (1856), received disastrous reviews, ("one of the worst pictures at the exhibition", said the Athenaeum) although some acknowledged that it had been very badly hung. The original is now lost and we only have a sketch on which to comment. Certainly it is a very different picture than the Cimabue. Part of this frosty reception was probably down to the fact that he had settled in Paris and had adopted certain European tendencies (such as the grandiose"history" style) in his painting (influenced, perhaps, by Bougereau, who he knew in Paris).

The Triumph of Music (sketch). Classicists decried the fact that Orpheus was depicted with a violin rather than a lyre.

As a result Leighton didn't exhibit in 1857 but worked on several paintings which he exhibited in 1858, again, to a lukewarm reception. However, his reputation gradually built, particularly after he moved back to London in 1859, although he was always a great traveller, visiting North Africa, Europe and Asia Minor to sketch and paint. By the 1860s he was earning £4,000 a year at a time when a labourer's annual income was £30 a year. His paintings were selling for hundreds, even thousands, of pounds with the record going to Captive Andromache which went for £6,000. He became an associate of the Royal Academy in 1864, a full RA in 1868 and, ultimately, President of the Royal Academy in 1878.

Flaming June was painted late in his life in, 1895. It is 47" x 47" and is particularly appropriate for this blog as it is believed to deliberately echo the sleeping Venus pictures produced by Titian and Giorgione. The poisonous oleander branch visible in the top right of the painting symbolises the close link between sleep and death in some Romantic Victorian minds and this theme was an important one for Leighton. Also, at this time, the significance of dreams (particularly their sexual significance) was being much discussed, seriously, for the first time, with dreams being considered a window to the soul. Albert Moore, around this time, also painted sleeping, female figures in classical costume.

Flaming June sketch (1894)

Some critics have said that the rendition of the orange drapery is not particularly good; that it appears transparent where draped over the figure but opaque when not. This may be because Leighton may have followed popular practice in drawing the model naked and then adding the drapery afterwards. More likely it was a deliberate artifice to draw attention to the nakedness of the female form underneath. In this sketch and the one below the folds of drapery on the subject's thigh are more prominent than in the finished painting.

Of the distinctive pose itself, Leighton claimed that it came from the subject. "The design was not a deliberate one, but was suggested by the chance attitude of a weary model who had a peculiarly supple figure".

There is a sketch showing an alternate pose, although the arrangements of the legs are the same. It has been said that the pose may have been suggested by studies Leighton had made of Michelangelo's Night in Rome and from GF Watts Hope.

Hope (1886) by GF Watts

However, the viewpoint is far less conventional, using a low angle which gives prominence to the girl's shimmering thigh at the expense of other parts of her body.

Other critics have also said that the pose is a physically impossible one (like Ingres Odalisque) but that is hadly relevant. Anyway, this recreation by American photographer Angela McAllister shows that Leighton was certainly working within the bounds of possibility, with perhaps only some exaggeration on the tucked-under left leg.

The painting now hangs in the Ponce Museum of Art, Ponce, Puerto Rico (famous, of course, for being a cartographical error: Puerto Rico was supposed to be the name of the city, San Juan the Island!), although it was, until February this year on show at Tate Britain (from April 2008) whilst the gallery in Puerto Rico was being renovated. Agent Triple P saw it at an exhibition in London in 1996, during it's previous visit.

The story of how the painting ended up in Puerto Rico is intriguing and there seem to be some alternative versions.

In 1895 it was owned by Mrs James Watney who left it to her grand-daughter, Mrs Charles Lyell, in 1915 who loaned it to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. There it remained until 1930 when it was returned to Mrs Lyell who sold it sometime in the 1930s. It then disappeared from view until 1962 when some workmen demolishing a house in Clapham Common in 1962 claimed to have found the picture hidden behind a false panel. Whether this is true or not, and they somehow "liberated" it from elsewhere in the house and needed a convincing cover story, it ended up in a picture framing shop in Lavender Hill. Victorian Art expert Professor Bernard Nevill spotted it there whilst looking for Pre-Raphaelite paintings; which were equally unfashionable at the time. Picture framers were a good source of bargains for Victorian art speculators at the time. Paintings by artists like Leighton and Alma-Tadema were often sold just for the value of their frames in the early 1960s. It was this market that enabled a collector like Allen Funt (creator of Candid Camera) to build up a huge collection of Alma-Tadema paintings in the 1960s. The price label on it was £60 but Nevill didn't have the money at that time.

Shortly afterwards the picture had been removed from the frame, which was then put on sale for £65 with the picture being offered at £50. It was spotted by a 14 year old schoolboy who rushed to his father to borrow the cash. His father, a professor of music, decided that their South Kensington flat was too small to display it, much to the boy's (one Andrew Lloyd-Webber) disappointment (although he did later acquire a Leighton: Dante in Exile (1864)).

It was eventually bought by a hairdresser who then sold it to Colonel Freddy Beddington, who had been a student of Leighton's friend, Sir Edward Poynter. He then sold it on to art dealer Jeremy Maas for £1,000. It was whilst in Maas' gallery that it was spotted by either a Mr Taylor, an agent of Luis Ferre, or Mr Ferre himself. Ferre (1904-2003) was a Puerto Rican industrialist and politician who was in Europe looking for paintings for the gallery he had just founded in Ponce.

The wily gallery owner asked for and got $10,000 for the picture and Ferre took it back (along with Burne-Jones' last work The Sleep of Arthur at Avalon (1898) ) to form the centrepiece of his new gallery. The picture is iconic in Puerto Rico where it is known as 'The Mona Lisa of the Western Hemisphere' and there is a feeling that they rescued a masterpeice from obscurity (or at least from Andrew Lloyd-Webber).

The painting in its tabernacle style frame on display in its home Ponce, Puerto Rico

Latterly, of course, Victorian Classical painting has been rehabilitated and the Puerto Ricans have loaned the painting to other galleries in Europe and North America. Currently it is on loan to the Prado in Madrid where it will be on display for the next two weeks.

Leighton died the year after Flaming June was painted, the day after he was ennobled as Lord Leighton of Stretton: the only British artist so honoured. He was also, consequently, the shortest serving peer of the realm. His death was probably accelerated by the frantic pace he led his life: constantly painting and travelling and not slowing down despite heart problems. His last words were "Give my love to all at the Academy".

For many years the model for the painting was believed to have been Dorothy Dene (real name Ada Alice Pullen (1859-1899) a tall, long-limbed actress who Leighton used a lot as his model (notably in the Bath of Psyche). We will look at Dorothy Dene in another post. Over the last ten years or so, however, it has been suggested that the model for Flaming June was Mary Lloyd, the daughter of a country squire, who had fallen on hard times and had to take to the then very disreputable job of modelling.

She also posed for Sir Frank Dicksee, Sir John Millais, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown, John William Waterhouse and William Holman Hunt. We know that Mary Lloyd was the model for Leighton's painting Lachrymae painted the same year as Flaming June.

Lachrymae is the large picture on the left. Flaming June on the right.

A photograph of his studio taken shortly after his death shows his unsold works, including Flaming June and Lachrymae. Lloyd herself was interviewed about her work modelling for Leighton in 1933. She did not specifically mention Flaming June but at this time it was not a famous work and so she probably felt that it wasn't worthy of comment.

L to R: Mary Lloyd by Millais, Flaming June and a photograph from 1933.

She died shortly afterwards virtually destitute, as her artistic patrons had all been elderly when she modelled for them; soon leaving her with no further work.

Agent Triple P thinks that Flaming June is one of the great masterpieces of high Victorian art and would urge anyone to see it if they have the chance. The sheer luminosity of the painting has never been adequately captured in reproductions and, in real life, the effect of it is truly stunning.

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