"Sir Frederick Leighton maintains a level of excellence that would be wonderful if the reason of it were not so manifest. He invariably sets up a lofty standard, and to that standard he as invariably attains; for he knows his own power so accurately, and in accomplishment is so certain, that he is as unlikely of failure as he is indisposed to shoot beyond the mark which he presumably regards as his limit" - Magazine of Art, 1895.
Lord Leighton, etching by Klinkicht, after Watts.
Frederick Leighton regarded himself as of a very different School to that of the Pre-Raphaelites, yet was friends with many of them, and from our perspective we can see close links between his Aesthetic Classicism and the Pre-Raphaelite style. He was for a time the pupil of Edward von Steinle, a follower of the Nazarenes, who were also directly inspirational to the Pre-Raphaelites. In the 1860s, Leighton made some illustrations for George Elliot's Romola, some of which look very Pre-Raphaelite.
Leighton studied almost entirely on the Continent, in Germany, France, Belgium and Italy. It was while he was in Rome that he was visited by the novelist Thackeray, who on returning to London, commented to Millais that he "should look to his laurels... as there is a young fellow called Leighton in Rome ... who if I'm not mistaken, will one day be President of the Royal Academy." Leighton did indeed become PRA before Millais, in 1878. After his death in 1896, Millais finally achieved the position, but occupied it only for a short time before his own demise.
Leighton's election to the Presidency of the Royal Academy proved popular. The Magazine of Art felt moved to comment that
"It is not often that the elections at the Royal Academy can be regarded with unmixed satisfaction by those who are interested in the welfare of the institution as the representative artistic society of Great Britain... In selecting Frederick Leighton for this important post the Royal Academy has fulfilled the hopes of almost the entire artistic public. Never, perhaps, has public opinion been so unanimous as it has shown itself on this subject."Leighton was tremendously influential in the art world, perhaps most notably by raising the profile of sculpture in establishment circles. However, he was accused by some, notably G. D. Leslie, of diluting the British character of the Academy. After his death, the Leighton Fund was set up to purchase/commission works of art for public places. Athlete Struggling with a Python
Leighton's large oeuvre of classical pictures include The Bath of Psyche, And the Sea Gave Up the Dead Which Were In It, the large murals The Industrial Arts of War and The Industrial Arts of Peace and Flaming June. He also made a few important statues, notably The Sluggard and Athlete Wrestling with a Python. The Sluggard won a Grand Prix at the Paris Exhibition of 1891, but drew some criticism as being too over-muscled, as of a great athlete, rather than appropriate development for the subject.
Leighton House is open to the public and contains many studies and finished pictures, as well as the sumptiously decorated Arab Hall. The Industrial Arts murals are at the V&A, The Bath of Psyche and the Athlete Wrestling with a Python are at the Tate, (another Athlete Wrestling and The Sluggard are on display in the Royal Academy). The Garden of the Hesperides and The Daphnephoria are at Port Sunlight, Captive Andromache and The Last Watch of Hero are at Manchester and Perseus and Andromeda and Elijah in the Wilderness are at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Perseus and Pegasus with Head of Medusa is at Leicester. Leeds has The Return of Persephone. The small Fisherman and the Syren is at Bristol. Portraits by Leighton can be seen at Leighton House, and at the National Portrait Gallery.
As an influential President of the Royal Academy, Leighton's work is well-represented internationally. Cymon and Iphegenia and Wedded are in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, and in Adelaide is The Feigned Death of Juliet. Spirit of the Summit is in Auckland Art Gallery. Winding the Skein and Lachrymae are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Solitude (1889-90) is in the Maryhill Museum of Art, Washington, Actaea is in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, and his most important self-portrait is at the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Following a decline in popularity of Victorian paintings after Leighton's death, Flaming June was bought cheaply by the Museo de Arte, Puerto Rico.
A painting by Leighton was discovered in October 1996 in Suffolk, England, after having been 'lost' for 80 years. Cleobulos instructing his daughter Cleobouline was painted in 1871, the same year as Hercules wrestling with Death, and was estimated by Sotheby's to be worth $180,000 upwards at auction. In April 1998 another picture called Kittens was refound more than 70 years after its last appearance. It shows a girl in mauve drapery with a kitten seated next to her.
Leighton's studio, 1880s.
Top of page
Classical painters // Other artists