Frederic Lord Leighton painted Flaming June in 1895. Leighton was one of the most famous artists of the 19th century and this particular portrait painting is widely acknowledged as his magnum opus.
As Leighton’s career-defining masterpiece, it represents the pinnacle of Victorian Neo-Classical art.
The Flaming June composition was originally intended as a small part of another Frederic Leighton artwork, Summer Slumber. In this painting, the figure of Flaming June would have appeared as a decoration on the side of a marble bath. Whilst working on preparatory sketches however, Leighton loved this element so much, he turned the figure into a full-scale portrait. This is the Flaming June painting we know and love today.
The sitter’s pose is loosely based on Michelangelo’s Night statue, which can be found on the Medici tombs of Florence. Leighton regarded Michelangelo’s sculptures as a “supreme achievement” of Western Art. However, the pose proved problematic to draw, and Leighton produced several preparatory sketches in various positions. Of these preparatory sketches, four are nude and one is semi-clothed.
The realism of the woman’s transparent draped dress has since stunned art critics and the public alike. As well as her clothing, the rich jewel-like colors, stunningly detailed marble and naturalistic lighting are exemplary. Samuel Courtauld (founder of the UK’s London based Courtauld Gallery) even described the artwork as “the most wonderful painting in existence”.
Debate rages amongst art historians as to the exact identity of the sitter. Scholars believe the woman was either Dorothy Dene or May Lloyd. Both Dene and Lloyd were favorite muses of Leighton during the 1890s.
Most art historians argue that May Lloyd is the most likely candidate. Lloyd began modeling for Leighton in the early 1890s. She also posed for the painting Lachrymae as well as Twixt Hope and Fear, which were both painted around the same time as Flaming June.
May Lord was the daughter of a respectable yet impoverished country family. She traveled to London as a young woman and developed an immensely successful modeling career.
Importantly though, she only posed for heads and hands (instead of full nude modeling). Scholars consequently believe the body could be based on someone else, perhaps even Dorothy Dene.
Whatever her identity, the woman represents Greek mythological figures. The figure particularly references sleeping nymphs. In the top right of the canvas, a poisonous oleander (or “nerium”) branch is just visible. This further adds to the symbolism of the painting, distinctly linking slumber and the afterlife.
Sir Frederic Leighton’s artworks depicted historical, biblical and classical subjects. Whilst Leighton had an affinity with the movement, he was not primarily a Pre-Raphaelite artist.
All of Frederic Leighton’s oil paintings (with Flaming June being no exception) employed a strictly academic style. Influenced by the French Academy, the movement expounded well-established principles of Neo-Classicism and Romanticism.
Leighton frequently socialized with Pre-Raphaelite painters and the crème de la crème of Victorian avant-garde society. He collaborated with the playwright and poet Robert Browning, and notably he designed Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s tomb, which is located in the English Cemetery in Florence.
Leighton’s classically idealized portraits and sculptures were particularly well-respected by Pre-Raphaelite artists. Reflecting a true amalgamation of styles, Frederic Leighton artworks carefully merge brushstrokes as well as the uniform glow of the golden sunset also reflects the American Luminism movement. This stylistic approach roughly lasted from 1850 to 1875 and considerably influenced European landscape painting.
Today, the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico holds the original Flaming June. It hangs alongside a diverse collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings including works by William Holman Hunt, Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rosetti.
Born on 3 December 1830, Sir Frederic Leighton was a British painter and sculptor particularly famed for his biblical and classical paintings.
Frederic Leighton artworks were incredibly popular during the Victorian period. His oil painting on canvas portraits fetched high sale prices and considerable critical acclaim.
Born in Scarborough (a seaside town in the North Riding of Yorkshire, England), Sir 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 the father’s work as a doctor, the family traveled frequently, and the children enjoyed a thoroughly European education.
The young man studied at University College School London, before receiving his main artistic education in Europe. This initially came from the Viennese artist Eduard von Steinle. A member of the Nazarene movement, Steinle prized spirituality in art. His characters were usually dressed in a biblical manner, reflecting early renaissance stylings.
After studying with Steinle, Leighton collaborated with the Italian artist Giovanni Costa. Costa primarily focused on landscape art, focused on patriotic depictions of his home country. He 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).
Whilst 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). He then moved to Paris in 1855, initially to meet his sister, Alexandra.
It was here that Leighton introduced Alexandra to the great Victorian poet and playwright Robert Browning. His sister and the poet became firm friends, with Browning reading to Alexandra at least twice a week. She lost her sight at the age of sixteen, due to rheumatic fever picked-up on the family’s travels.
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 in 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. This included many French painters such Delacroix, Corot, Ingres and Millet. Their style of classical realism made a lasting impression on Leighton.
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 (largely 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 greater 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 to this day.
Leighton also joined the Artists Rifles (an army volunteer corps) in 1860, and was quickly promoted to Captain just nine years later. In 1875, Leighton was promoted again to the position of 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 amazing proficiency in romantic everyday scenes (demonstrated in the touching maternal atmosphere) is plain to see.
Frederic Lord Leighton’s Persephone is a true masterpiece however, demonstrating his love of the 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 highpoint of Victorian Neo-Classical art and his personal magnum opus.
Throughout his life, Leighton remained unmarried. Rumors abounded about illegitimate children and accusations of same-sex attraction, but this remains unproved.
Leighton certainly had several 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, Leighton bears the unfortunate record for holding the shortest ever peerage in UK history. Only one day after being made a Baron, he passed away.
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. The Leighton Museum still contains most of the artist’s paintings and drawings, as well as 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
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