Frederic Lord Leighton - urbane, cosmopolitan, charming - and President of the Royal Academy from 1878 until his death in 1896, was the most influential of Victorian Classical painters. 'Jupiter Olympus' was the nickname given to him by Burne-Jones. Trained in Frankfurt, Rome and Berlin, Leighton was steeped in continental Academic practice. His first master was the German 'Nazarene' artist Steinle.
Leighton was born in Scarborough, Yorkshire and was brought up initially in London. At an early age his wealthy and well educated family started travelling in Europe seeking improvement for his mother's poor health. Thus Leighton had the opportunity to learn European languages (German, Italian and French) and was introduced to the art and architecture of the European capitals.
His father wanted young Leighton to follow his career as a doctor and gave him careful instruction in human anatomy, beneficial to his future career as a painter.
Leighton's early pictures from c.1852-63 show the influence on his art of the Nazarenes and the Pre-Raphaelites. His early subjects were chosen from the wriitings of Dante, Shakespeare, Boccaccio and Vasari. Leighton also studied fifteenth century frescoes in Florence, especially those by Ghirlandaio and Benozzo Gozzoli.
The Walker Art Gallery's 'An Italian Crossbowman', 1863, belongs to this early phase of his career, when Leighton was also producing illustrations for George Eliot's 'Romola' - a novel about late fifteenth century Florence.
Leighton studied in Paris between 1855-8. He modified his style, producing a group of more overtly Classical pictures redolent of the nudes of Ingres and contemporary French Classical art. In addition he painted several portraits and 'fancy pictures' that evoke the richness of Venetian sixteenth century art and in particular the pictures of the Veronese.
'Elijah in the Wilderness', 1878, is representative of Leighton's most austere Classical manner. The hard-edged figures with well-developed muscles show the influence of Michelangelo. 'An Elegy', 1889, by contrast is a small-scale fancy picture with softer drapery and a dreamy mood - closer in spirit to the 'Aesthetic' concerns of Albert Moore and others.
'Perseus and Andromeda', 1892, set on the rocky coast of Donegal near Malin Head is a fusion of all Leighton's mature interests, a grand heroic subject, with superbly modulated colour.
Leighton also made some sculpture including the bronze 'Athlete Wrestling with a Python', 1874-7, usually regarded as heralding the New Sculpture. Although the athlete's figure is idealized, Leighton uses rugged faceted surfaces and planes which catch the light and give it heightened reality.
The following works by Frederic Lord Leighton from the collections of National Museums Liverpool are available to view online:
‘A Sunny Corner’
‘Weaving the Wreath’
Lady Lever Art Gallery
‘Elijah in the Wilderness’
Walker Art Gallery
‘Athlete Struggling with a Python’
Walker Art Gallery
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