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'The Garden of the Hesperides' c 1892, by Frederic Leighton (1830-1896)


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About the artwork

'The Garden of the Hesperides' depicts the three daughters of Hesperus or the God of Evening, the Hesperides, resting. The picture draws its theme from the ancient myth in which the Hesperides were assigned by the Goddess Hera (Juno) to guard the golden apples which she had been given on her wedding to Zeus by Earth (Zeus' mother).

The theft of the apples is well known as one of the Heracles' Ten Labours. In the painting, the Hesperides sing to the unsleeping dragon in the garden at the end of the world where the apples were kept.

The lavish colours of the painting and the beauty of the scene make it extremely difficult to predict the invasion of Hercules, the slaying of the dragon and theft of the apples.

Leighton replaced the dragon in the original myth with a serpent entwined around the tree and the body of the central figure. The inclusion of the serpent, the idyllic mood of the painting and the languor of the three female figures in the beautiful garden can be seen to represent eternal life before the fall from paradise. It was common for Victorian artists to invest classical myths and stories with religious messages.

Lord Lever bought 'The Garden of the Hesperides' together with 'Daphnephoria' in 1913 from Christie's.

Frederic 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 initially trained in the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, but left for Frankfurt in 1846 where he enrolled in the State Institute of Art. Here he was influenced by the work of the German Nazarene artists Steinle, Overbeck and Veit whose work came close to the British Pre-Raphaelites, having religious and spiritual overtones.

Leighton also stayed for shorter periods in Rome and Paris, meeting other European painters and training in their studios before he returned in England in 1859.

'Daphnephoria' a monumental work and a masterpiece of human anatomy and group composition, also on display in the Lady Lever Art Gallery was exhibited two years before Leighton's election as the President of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1878.

In his role at the Academy, Leighton was often compared with Joshua Reynolds, the famous 18th century portraitist. During his presidency, Leighton tried to overcome the image of the Academy as an exclusive institution. He made the case for women artists to become full members with status and privileges equivalent to their male colleagues and was always supportive to younger painters and sculptors.

Leighton had visited the Newlyn School of Painters (Forbes, Bramley, Tuke) and was very enthusiastic about the work of the American painter Sargent as well as Beardsley and Charles Richetts. However his contemporaries criticised his latest work for lacking vigour and spontaneity and being too highly crafted.

Despite such criticism, 'The Garden of the Hesperides' is distinct for its scale and originality. It also demonstrates the influence of the Renaissance artist Michelangelo, in the sculptural qualities and the mastery of the human anatomy.

The Painting

'The Garden of the Hesperides' depicts the three daughters of Hesperus or the God of Evening, the Hesperides, resting. The picture draws its theme from the ancient myth in which the Hesperides were assigned by the Goddess Hera (Juno) to guard the golden apples which she had been given on her wedding to Zeus by Earth (Zeus' mother).

The theft of the apples is well known as one of the Heracles' Ten Labours. In the painting, the Hesperides sing to the unsleeping dragon in the garden at the end of the world where the apples were kept.

Leighton who had a classical education, surely knew the myth but might have also drawn his inspiration from the following passage of 'Comus' by the British poet Milton (1608-1674):

…the liquid ayr All amid the Gardens fair Of Hesperus and his daughters three That sing about the golden tree

The passage seems to match well the imagery and mood of Leighton's painting.

Another scholar suggested that Leighton's inspiration could have been Ruskin's reference in the fifth book of the 'Modern Painters' to a painting by Turner with a similar theme. Ruskin (1819-1900) analysed Turner's painting as a symbol of English mercantile empire and the dangers of materialism. Leighton read and was greatly influenced by Ruskin's 'Modern Painters'. The two had met in mid 1850s.

Leighton replaced the dragon in the original myth with a serpent entwined around the tree and the body of the central figure, probably influenced by the theme of 'Salammbo', the novel by the French writer Flaubert (1821-1880). ('Salammbo' was also the inspiration for the statue by Maurice Ferrary in the front room of the Lady Lever Art Gallery).

From a number of drawings we know that Leighton initially arranged the three figures within a round frame. He had chosen the round shape for earlier work as well as for 'And the sea gave up the dead which were in it', c 1891-92. The picture is now in Tate Britain but was originally intended for the spandrels of the dome of St Paul's Cathedral in London.

Furthermore the round shape complements the overall mood of the painting. The women's expressions are dreamy while their varied postures, hands and drapery seem to follow the tunes of the lyre and add to the sensuous atmosphere of the painting.

Leighton in the latest phase of his career may have been more influenced by the Aestheticists, the artists (James Whistler, Walter Pater, Albert Moore) who proclaimed art's purpose as being the pleasing of the senses rather than a literal meaning. As a result, Leighton did not try to narrate the myth but instead to evoke the sensuous mood of the Hesperides in the idyllic garden.

Lord Lever bought 'The Garden of the Hesperides' together with 'Daphnephoria' in 1913 from the Christie's auction of the collection of the famous collector of Victorian art, George McCullogh.