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Saturday, November 29, 2014

Frederic Lord Leighton

Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna is carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence, 1853-55, Frederic Leighton
And the Sea Gave Up the Dead which were in it,
 1891-92, Frederic Lord Leighton
There's probably no greater example of how tastes in art have changed in the past hundred years or so than in the wide chasm between now and the then of the latter half of the 19th century. It makes little difference which country's art and artist you wish to look back upon in comparison--England, France, Netherlands, German, Spain, the U.S.--you find the same divergence. In England and to a lesser exten in he U.S. it was called Victorian art (after the ruling British monarch of that time). In France it's referred to as Academic or Beaux-Arts style. In Spain we could just call this era Pre-Picasso. So, what caused this fussy, literal, "Realism rules" type of art to fall out of favor around the turn of the century. I could just say "Modern Art," but that's like noting that water puts out fires. There's bound to be more to it than that. We could also name artists responsible for such a break with the past, Whistler, Manet, Monet, Picasso, O'Keeffe, Duchamp, painters so familiar today there's no need to mention their given names. We could also point to technology--photography, the automobile, color lithography, indoor plumbing, central heating, the assembly line, even modern warfare. There, is, of course, no one factor, but to varying (debateable) degrees, all of the above. When people change drastically the way they live, they also tend to change how they think, and their cultural tastes as well.

Mother and Child, 1865, Frederic Lord Leighton--Victorian sentimentality at its height.
Frederic Lord Leighton Self-portrait, 1880
The British painter, Frederic Lord Leighton was, perhaps, the last dying breath of the Victorian era in art. He drew that last dying breath on January 26, 1896. He was sixty-five years old. For eighteen years he had been president of London's Royal Academy of Art, perhaps responsible more than anyone else alive at the time in producing, promoting, and prolonging the Victorian art era in England. Moreover, he was not without considerable influence elsewhere in Europe. He came of age as a painter in the 1850s, during the dying years of the Romantic era as the art world rediscovered Classicism for about the umpteenth time in art history. His work had elements of both, which inevitably combined to form a sort of sentimental classicism tinged at times with obscure religious and mythological references. As a student in Paris, he rubbed elbows with Ingres, Delacroix, Corot, and Millet. Later, in London, he cozied up to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; and though his work at times bears traces of PRB influence, he was not one of the close-knit group.
Daphnephoria, 1876, Frederic Lord Leighton.
Athlete Struggling with a Python,
1877, Frederic Lord Leighton.
As I noted obliquely above, Leighton was born in 1830 near Scarborough (northeastern coast of England) where his father was in the import-export business. He received a proper British education at University College in London followed by time spent studying in Germany before settling in at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence. It was there he painted his first major work, Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna is carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence (top), dating from around 1853-55. He spent another four years studying and working in Paris. Then, in moving back to London around 1860, Leighton was immediately called upon by Robert Browning to design Elizabeth Barrett Browning's tomb for the English Cemetery, in Florence.

The Hit, 1893, Sir Frederick Leighton.

Quite apart from his painting, Leighton was also adept at sculpture, his Athlete Struggling with a Python (above, right) from 1877 was considered one of the great Victorian masterpieces in its time. Leighton was knighted in 1878 and made a Baron on January 24, 1896. He died the next day, therefore owning the record as the shortest peerage in the history of the British Empire. In tribute to him after his death, his paintings were chosen to represent British art at the 1900 Paris Universal Exhibition. Leighton's home in the Holland Park section of London has been turned into a museum of his work. During his career, Leighton was also an enthusiastic volunteer soldier, commanding a group known as the "Artists Rifles." The American expatriate painter, James McNeill Whistler, in reeling off Sir Frederick's lengthly list of honors, positions, and accomplishments is said to have added at the end: "...aye, and he paints a little."

Two Women on a Sofa, 1875, Frederic Lord Leighton. Virtually all of Leighton's female figures are depicted as indolent and passive.


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