“If Leighton looked back to classical prototypes, he did so through the eyes of a Victorian aesthete, whose primary concern was to please the eye and elevate the imagination of his audience, not to belabour them with the perfection of Greek form.” Richard Ormond.
Frederic Leighton was born in Scarborough in the north of England, and travelled widely from an early age. By the age of 15 he had decided to become an artist and studied in Frankfurt and Florence. He exhibited his first painting, ‘Cimabue finding Giotto in the Fields of Florence’ in 1850. By 1853 he was already developing a distinctive style with his portrait ‘Isabel Laing’. A year later he painted ‘Cimabue’s Madonna’ (1853-1855) and it divided audiences into those who viewed it as the zenith of Pre-Raphaelite painting and those who hated the painting, as well as this burgeoning movement.
Leighton exhibited at the Royal Academy as an associate member in 1865 with ‘Mother and Child (Cherries)’. As in much of his work there is a certain degree of sentimentality in this painting but he took care not to let this overwhelm the piece. He was enthralled by classical themes and this can be seen most impressively in ‘Hercules wrestling with Death for the Body of Alcestis’ (1871) for example. By 1878 Leighton became President of the Royal Academy and was made a baronet in 1886. In 1893 he produced one of his most striking paintings in ‘Flaming June’ only to die a year later.
Leighton took on the directness of a classical style of art, relishing the grandiose themes and heavy symbolism associated with this. Yet he managed to convey the intimate at the same time, expressing a deep sense of humanity. Leighton’s draughtsmanship was sublime, his compositions were always immaculate and his colouring very rich. He achieved great success in his lifetime, perhaps only matched by his contemporary John Everett Millais.