Flaming June

Flaming June, by Frederic Lord Leighton (1830-1896)
Frederic Leighton, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Lord Leighton’s peerage was, reputedly, the shortest ever, subsisting for one day: ‘Leighton was the bearer of the shortest-lived peerage in history; after only one day, his hereditary peerage became extinct upon his death.’[Wikipedia]  He is usually counted among the Pre-Raphaelites, his works enjoying the same fluctuations of critical acclaim as theirs. From the picture above, evidence of his determination to achieve realism can be descried, the young woman’s bare right foot, toes neatly flexed, and then beneath the gossamer drapery, her other foot, the folds and pleats of the fabric delineated, and the curve of a thigh and buttock suggested; let the eye travel a little further, and there, nestled almost in the crook of her right elbow, a pleasantly full breast is not-quite-revealed, a pink nipple just visible, its form and colour echoing the point of her elbow. Her eyes are closed – in sleep, or entrancement,  – her long hair floating, as in an invisible stream, while behind and beyond her head glitters a stretch of perhaps moonlit sea. Those that know far more than I, will say that her neck and limbs have been stretched beyond the requirements of perspective, to make of her middle, an annular design, the circle being a potent symbol of Eternity and of the womb. Some read, or read into the slightly flushed cheek, the notion that, she knows she is being looked at; some even suggest slight erotic arousal. It is a sensuous painting – languorous, warm, and charged with a kind of eroticism that is elevated far above the basic ‘phwoar!’ of the merely pornographic.

Leighton painted at least four studies, before being happy with what eventually became ‘Flaming June’. I’d almost convinced myself that, far from being a portrait of an actual person, ‘Flaming June’ was an idealisation of a Type, but sources suggest that this was the painting of a model, however stylised and universalised. One learns that some models were drawn and painted perhaps for their hands, wrists, forearms, some for their bodies draped, some as nudes; presumably there was an agreed ‘tariff’…

Then, in the post-war period (WWI), all this exactitude and elevation was increasingly shrilly denounced as ‘academicism’ and decried as, among other things, pointlessly unnecessary, since the Camera was perfectly able to do what figurative artists strove so hard to do; skilled draughtsmen like Picasso cynically decided to prostitute their art, and hoodwink the gullible, rich ‘progressives’ and mock both them and themselves as with Salvador Dali; the madness that is Socialism stamped everywhere upon the Beautiful and the Good. Lucien Freud is, perhaps a good example of a painter who can actually draw, although in a loose, scratchy and splashy way, but whose ‘realism’ involves demeaning his models rather then idealising them: rolls of fat are dispassionately shown, as are no longer pert breasts, in all their unproductive fatuity.

Of course, Frederick Leighton did more than just paint, he was also a very accomplished Sculptor, and worked in Fresco – in the medium revived or re-invented, by Thomas Gambier Parry (C.H.H. Parry, of, among others, ‘I Was Glad’ fame, was a son). ‘Gambier Parry developed a spirit medium for use on a specially prepared plaster or canvas ground and in 1862 he published his recipe. Originally it used beeswax, oil of spike lavender, spirits of turpentine, elemi resin and copal varnish, and was complex both in preparing the wall surface and applying the paint.[1] With commercialisation the process was simplified and became widely known.’[ Wiki]. It was this method Leighton used, for his huge murals in the Victoria & Albert Museum:

If, like me, those infernal Napoleonic measurements nowadays given, will mean little to you, the scale is indicated by the man in the blue shirt passing by on the other side, apparently quite oblivious – because it’s Victorian, perhaps? –  and therefore not worth a look!

Debussy might have written a piece about ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’; Lord Leighton painted a woman with golden hair, apparently loving the Yellow pigment produced by the poisonous element Cadmium, and this woman is upright, not reclining, her hair lighter than that of ‘Flaming June’; of course, he also painted women with darker hair, women touching a ceremonial sword to a man’s shoulders, allegorical women… yet there are those who wish to recruit him among the ranks of Homosexuals, as though this could confer further distinction to him. I see no trace of homoeroticism in his Sculptures of the nude male form.

I will say, however, that any woman, surely, would be delighted to see her charm and loveliness elevated and enhanced by such mastery as his, and think how wonderful it must have been to have lived when the phrase ‘Modern Art’ referred to such things as he wrought.

© Jethro 2024