Lord Frederic Leighton is a British painter and sculptor particularly famed for his biblical and classical paintings.
Frederic Leighton artworks were incredibly popular during the Victorian era. His oil painting on canvas portraits fetched high sale prices and considerable critical acclaim.
Born on December 3, 1830, in Scarborough (a seaside town in the North Riding of Yorkshire, England), Lord Frederic Leighton enjoyed a happy childhood. The son of Augusta Susan and Dr. Frederic Septimus Leighton, he was close to his two sisters, Augusta and Alexandra.
Due to his father’s work as a doctor, the family traveled frequently, and the children enjoyed a thoroughly European education.
Leighton studied at University College School London before receiving his main artistic education in Europe. Initially, teaching came from the Viennese artist Eduard von Steinle. A member of the Nazarene Brotherhood, Steinle prized spirituality in art, and his characters appear in biblical dress, reflecting early renaissance stylings.
After studying with Steinle, Leighton collaborated with the Italian artist Giovanni Costa. Costa primarily focused on landscape art and patriotic depictions of his home country. Costa appears in Leighton’s Portrait of Professor Giovanni Costa, painted in 1878.
Paintings by Frederic Leighton combine the biblical and romantic inspirations of these two early teachers, amply displayed in works such as The Fisherman and the Syren (painted in 1856, based on a ballad by the German poet Goethe) and the atmospheric realism of Painter’s Honeymoon (1864).
While in Frankfurt during the summer of 1847, Leighton was lucky enough to meet the famous German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. At just seventeen years old, he drew Schopenhauer’s portrait. Completed in graphite and gouache on paper, it remains the only full-length drawing of Schopenhauer.
At the age of twenty-four, Leighton moved to Florence and continued his studies at the Accademia di Belle Arti (one of the country’s leading art academies).
Leighton's move to Paris in 1855 facilitated a meeting between his Sister Alexandra and the great Victorian poet and playwright Robert Browning.
Unfortunately, Alexandra lost her sight at sixteen due to rheumatic fever from the family’s travels. Nevertheless, Alexandra and the poet became firm friends, with Browning reading to her at least twice a week.
Alexandra later wrote a biography of Browning. She also sat for Leighton on several occasions, appearing in at least two of his paintings.
One of these works, Portrait of Alexandra Leighton, later Mrs. Sutherland Orr (1953), delighted audiences at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1861. Painted side-profile, Leighton depicts his sister with a roman wreath around her head, gazing out over an Italian landscape complete with cypress trees, stone buildings, and receding rolling hills.
Leighton had a wide circle of European avant-garde artistic and intellectual friends. Leighton's peers include many French painters such as Delacroix, Corot, Ingres, and Millet. Their style of classical realism made a lasting impression on the artist.
In 1860, Leighton relocated again. He moved to London, where he became involved with Pre-Raphaelite circles. Despite this, Leighton was not a Pre-Raphaelite painter himself.
His fame steadily grew during this period (mainly due to his popular Neo-Classical style), culminating in Leighton’s acceptance as an associate of the prestigious Royal Academy of Arts.
From 1878 to 1896, Leighton held the even more incredible honor of serving as President of the Royal Academy.
Following on from esteemed Presidents such as Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Lawrence, Leighton passionately supported the organization’s promotion of the arts. Based at Burlington House, Piccadilly, the institution continues its charitable mission through exhibitions and educational initiatives.
Leighton also joined the Artists Rifles (an army volunteer corps) in 1860 and was quickly promoted to Captain just nine years later. Then, in 1875, Leighton was again promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.
The painter James McNeill Whistler once laughingly described Leighton as “Colonel of the Royal Academy and the President of the Artists Rifles.” He sardonically quipped, “and he paints a little too!”
Some of the most famous Frederic Leighton artworks include Music Lesson (1877) and The Return of Persephone (1890). In the former painting, Leighton’s remarkable proficiency in romantic everyday scenes (demonstrated in the comforting maternal atmosphere) is plain to see.
However, Frederic Lord Leighton’s Persephone is a true masterpiece, demonstrating his love of Academic Style and classical influences. It vividly depicts the moment of joy witnessed at Persephone’s brief annual reunion with her mother, Demeter. Leighton frequently tackled Greek and Roman mythology in his art, also evidenced in Daedalus and Icarus (1869) and The Bath of Psyche (1889).
Frederic Leighton’s Flaming June (1895) was one of the artist’s last paintings, representing the high point of Victorian Neo-Classical art and his magnum opus.
Throughout his life, Leighton remained unmarried. Rumors abounded about illegitimate children and accusations of same-sex attraction, but this remains unproven.
Leighton had intense relationships with male friends (most notably the poet Henry Willian Greville). From surviving letters, however, Leighton does not appear to have reciprocated Greville’s romantic feelings.
Sadly, Frederic Leighton bears the unfortunate record for holding the shortest ever peerage in UK history. Unfortunately, he passed away only one day after being made a Baron.
Leighton died on 25 January 1896 from a heart attack. With no children of his own, the peerage expired.
At his funeral (held on 3 February 1896), mourners carried Leighton’s coffin past a guard of honor by the Artists Rifles into St Paul’s Cathedral.
Leighton’s sisters outlived him and ensured his legacy continued. At Alexandra’s insistence, Leighton’s principal residence (an impressive home in Holland Park, in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea) became the “Leighton Museum.”
Today, Leighton’s portraits of Alexandra hang in the National Portrait Gallery and the Leighton Museum. In addition, The Leighton Museum still contains most of the artist’s paintings and drawings and his extensive personal art collection.
Reflecting his high contemporary esteem, a selection of Frederic Leighton paintings represented Britain at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris.
Enjoy beautiful oil painting reproductions by incredible English artist Lord Frederic Leighton.