Frederic Leighton began his career as a painter of medieval and renaissance historical subjects, later going on to become a leading figure in the revival of classicism in British painting in the 1860s. In 1878, became the most distinguished president the Royal Academy had known since Sir Joshua Reynolds.
As a boy Leighton travelled widely in Europe with his family. He received his art education in Berlin, Florence, Brussels and Frankfurt under the Nazarene painter Steinle. Between 1852 and 1855 he lived in Rome where he met and impressed the young Poynter with his artistic vocation. There he painted Cimabu’s Madonna carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence. Lauded by his fellow students, it was with this magnificent processional painting that he first burst upon the general public’s consciousness when he showed it at the Royal Academy in 1855. The picture was bought by Queen Victoria and is currently on loan from the Royal Collection to the National Gallery, London. Leighton spent the next three years in Paris, where he likely laid the foundations of his later classicism but his paintings from this period proved unpopular in England. Hence, when he settled permanently in London in 1859, he formed friendships with the Pre-Raphaelite artists, then also ‘outsiders,’ and joined their exhibiting society, the Hogarth Club.
Genius is not an easy talent to control and there are many whose careers peak early. Leighton must have benefited from the iron discipline drilled into him at his German art school. He was a sublime draughtsman; as at home with large, complicated compositions as with simple single figures. Above all, he was master of female flesh tones, and in this he rivalled Ingres; fine skin of the English rose, from porcelain to warm marble and warmer tones from the olive skin of Italy to the dusky brown of North Africa. This is all the more surprising considering he was a man who never married and never cohabited with a female partner. This sensually painted flesh he covered with sensational draperies for which he made innumerable preliminary studies.
As a sculptor, he was also a genius but never considered himself as one. He made small, impressionistic figurative groups in patinated plaster, which he used to try out compositions for his paintings. Some of these he enlarged and showed publicly as life size bronzes; The Athlete and Python changing forever the course of sculpting in Britain.
Establishment success came in 1864 for Leighton. He exhibited the popular Dante in Exile and was elected Associate of the Royal Academy. He began to build a house in Kensington (now Leighton House, a museum) where he entertained and held prestigious music parties. In Kensington he was a close neighbour of George Frederic Watts and together they began to explore classical subject matter. Leighton became a Royal Academician in 1868, was knighted when he became President of the Academy in 1878, and became a Baronet in 1886. He received numerous foreign honours and memberships of other British art societies. In the New Years Honours List for 1896 he was raised to the peerage, the only British artist ever to have attained this distinction. Sadly his health was failing and he died only a few days later on 25 January.
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