Lord Frederic Leighton

(3 December 1830 - 25 January 1896)

The acknowledged leader of the Victorian classical school of painting, Frederic Leighton was born in Scarborough, the son of a doctor. His grandfather, Sir James Leighton, was court physician to Czar Alexander I of Russia; and Sir James' son was also a doctor. Soon after Nicholas I became Czar in 1825 the Leighton family left Russia and spent the ensuing years travelling around Europe, giving their only son, Frederic, first-hand acquaintance with its cultural and artistic treasures.

Unlike most major artists of the nineteenth century Leighton did not study at the Royal Academy Schools, but received his training in Brussels, Paris and Frankfurt. In 1852 he went to live in Rome, where he moved in a large artistic circle which included Thackeray, Robert Browning and some of the most important French painters of the time.

On his return to England in 1855, his historical painting "Cimabue's Madonna Carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence" was shown at the Royal Academy, where it received a rapturous reception from the critics and was later bought by Queen Victoria. It was the start of what was to be a glittering career that took him to the very heights of his profession.

Leighton settled in London in 1860, and was made an RA in 1868, when he turned to painting subjects from mythology. His decision to abandon historical paintings coincided with a sudden upsurge of interest in Hellenism; even women's evening wear was influenced, Greek gowns that gave women a new-found freedom of movement becoming fashionable.

Leighton suddenly found himself the centre of attention, with his paintings the talk of London. He was elected President of the Royal Academy in 1878, and became a baron in 1896 (full title: Baron Leighton of Stretton), the only English artist to receive this honour. But by then he was a sick man who was suffering from angina. He died in 1896, and after lying in state at the RA, he was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral. His will included a bequest of £10,000 to the Royal Academy. The poet Algernon Swinburne composed a memorial elegy:

'A light has passed that never shall pass away
A sun has set whose rays are unequalled in might'.

Although at the time of his death Leighton was something of a national institution, his reputation quickly declined and his work and all that he stood for became objects of derision. It was to be another 60-70 years before his work would come into fashion again.

Leighton's beautiful home at 2 Holland Park Road, South Kensington, London is now a museum - Leighton House. Here you can see the opulence in which Leighton lived, and view paintings by Leighton, Burne-Jones and other Pre-Raphaelite artists, including Mariana in the South (John William Waterhouse) and "The End of the Quest" (Sir Frank Dicksee).


Frederic Leighton received his Art education at the University College School London. He also received legal education on the European continent, first from Edward von Steinle and then from Giovanni Costa. At age 24, while in Florence, Italy, he studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti, he painted the procession of the "Cimabue Madonna" through the Borgo Allegri. He lived in Paris from 1855 to 1859, where he met such great contemporary painters as Ingres, Delacroix, Corot and Millet and Picasso. In 1860, Leighton moved to London, England, where he associated with the Pre-Raphaelite painters. He designed Elizabeth Barrett Browning's tomb for Robert Browning in the 'English' Cemetery, Florence, in 1861. In 1864, he became an associate of the Royal Academy and in 1878, he became its President (1878-96). His paintings represented Britain at the great 1900 Paris Exhibition.

The rich colors and his brilliant handling of fabrics and drapery show a skill and experience few could match. Leighton noted "Combination of expressed motion and rest [are the] source of fascination in drapery - wayward flow & ripple like a living water together with absolute repose".


An account of public reaction to a painting by Leighton, and a number of other works, can be found in the 1905 edition of The Art Journal:
"For a second time at least, Leighton’s Chantrey picture, ‘The Bath of Psyche,’ has been objected to, most ridiculously, on the score of propriety. A few years ago, in Scotland, prints of it were ordered to be removed from a shop window, and now a dealer in Richmond, Virginia, has been fined for exposing a like engraving. The ban in Scotland extended to Sir Edward Poynter’s ‘Visit to Æsculapius,’ the Chantrey picture of the President, to Mr. Hacker’s ‘Syrinx,’ to Mr. Solomon J. Solomon’s ‘Orpheus,’ and to Watts’ ‘Diana and Endymion.’ These incidents remind us of the furore caused in the early nineties by Mr. P. H. Calderon’s ‘St. Elizabeth of Hungary,’ bought by the Chantrey Trustees for £1260. The artist aimed to pictorialise the scene described by Kingsley: “Lo, here I strip me of all my earthly helps.” Father Clarke, S.J., maintained that Calderon “painted a picture which is grossly insulting to a queen and a saint.” Professor Huxley and many others joined in the discussion."

View: Frederic Leighton Gallery

View painter's art: Frederic Leighton (1830-1896)

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