Flaming June (ii)

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

Every time I look at that picture, I seem almost to be looking out from near where I live, although the vista that includes St. Michael’s Mount is less distantly hazy, and the Mount more pyramid-like. But just see how he’s framed her: above her head is what looks like a window, opening not on Keats’  ‘magic casements, opening on the foam . Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn’ but an allusive, and illusive stretch of perhaps moonlit water, and then, the Artist has given his picture a further frame, in richly-moulded gesso, just as an Academician’s picture should have – and not ‘skied’! Is this a touch of humour, rather more delicate than ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ ? Almost as if the artist is saying, ‘I’ve made my picture so realistic, that it needs to be double-framed, to remind you that it is just a picture.’  Yet, if you look attentively, her right hand and wrist seem almost invertebrate in their flexibility maintaining that circular pattern mentioned earlier.

‘The gathered experience of past ages is a precious heritage and not an irksome load.’ was a maxim of his (1893) and also: “nothing will fortify (young artists) better for the future … than the reverent and loving study of the past”.

Ideas that are howled down, now.

Here are the sketches of hands, for his painting that depicts Cimabue’s Madonna in Procession, shewn under.

Drawing, studies in pencil of three hands for “Cimabue’s Madonna carried in procession through the streets of Florence”
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Frederic Leighton – Cimabue’s Madonna Carried in Procession – crop
Frederic Leighton, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In her Diary, Queen Victoria says of the picture, “There was a very big picture by a man called Leighton. It is a beautiful painting, quite reminding one of a Paul Veronese, so bright and full of light. Albert was enchanted with it—so much so that he made me buy it.”[ The price was, reputedly 600 Guineas. I cannot imagine what that would equate to these days. £59,864.77 the Inflation calculator suggests, for £600 (not Guineas) in 1870, so, say £62859…

Is it the horizontal format or all those legs that somehow create the illusion of stately movement?

Lord Frederic Leighton – Winding the skein
Frederic Leighton, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A daughter helps her mother winding wool into a ball… but the background puts us instantly into a distant time and place: so too, does the girl’s hair-style, and the mother’s Greek-style headdress and the style of her dress. With the classical allusions in its indeterminately Mediterranean setting (is that a fig-tree, just behind the parapet?) it suggests a possible symbolism: the thread of life being wound, as with The Parcae – or, since there is a Greek appearance of the two, perhaps one should say, Moirai. Again, to me the gentleness with which the mother and daughter are here painted, rules out the notion that Leighton was ‘not the marrying sort’, to use an old euphemism.

Lord Frederic Leighton – Cymon and Iphigenia
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The artist saw, in his head, the woman he wanted to depict, and it took months for him to find his ideal ‘He saw a young actress, Dorothy Dene, in a theatre in London and his search was over.[1] Possessing a classical Greek style beauty, Dene had golden wavy hair with excellent skin texture and colouration on her face; she was taller than average with graceful arms and legs together with an “exquisitely moulded bust”.[1] She appeared in several other of Leighton’s works, including Flaming June …’

The then art-critic of ‘The Spectator’ wrote of the ‘tenderness’ with which Leighton had painted one of his models in another picture, and that, apart from his superb technique, seems to be the ‘signature’ of his painting. ‘Dorothy ‘ ‘Dene’ was bequeathed the equivalent of well over a million pounds by Leighton: she, Ada, took the stage-name ‘Dorothy’ in commemoration of a younger sister; Leighton chose the ‘Dene’. There is, perhaps, something to be said for the ‘repression’,  ‘hypocrisy’ and ‘insincerity’ of that Age., when it can produce such subtle marvels of portraiture, such lively and life-affirming images of life’s worthier, more idealistic, moods and modes. Alma Tadema was another painter (‘Academic’ – uttered as a term of denigration) of the same period, but whose pictures, to me, lack the finesse and, yes, the ‘tenderness’, of Lord Leighton’s. But then, our age no longer seeks for Beauty; nor is ‘tenderness’ in its vocabulary at all.

© Jethro 2024