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'Fatidica', 1893-4, by Frederic Lord Leighton (1830 - 1896)


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About the artwork

Frederic Leighton, raised to the peerage just before his death in 1896, was one of Britain's most successful artists in the 19th century. Unusually for a British artist he had a continental training in Germany and Italy. President of the Royal Academy from 1878, Leighton was a conscientious and diplomatic administrator. He presided over the Academy at a time when its social influence was at its greatest and when its artist members were particularly well paid.

Fatidica or Fatua was a Roman goddess. Like the Greek sibyls she had the power to foresee the future. Her prophetic powers were exercised on behalf of women. Fatidica is represented here as an enthroned, heavily-draped, contemplative female figure, lost in reverie. Beside her is a tripod and on the floor a laurel wreath - one of the traditional attributes of the god Apollo. The picture forms one of a series that the artist painted of similar solitary wistful female figures abstractedly meditating.

Leighton probably drew the figure of Fatidica from his favourite model Dorothy Dene. She was a poor south London girl whose career as an actress he helped foster. She is also thought to have inspired George Bernard Shaw's character Eliza Doolittle in his famous play 'Pygmalion’, later filmed as ‘My Fair Lady’. Leighton was recast as Eliza's patron, the egotistical Professor Henry Higgins.

This picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in May 1894. It was bought by the dealers Thomas Agnew & Son. Lever bought it from Agnew's the following year for £1050 and added it to his growing collection of Leighton's pictures. In 1893 he had bought the painting of ‘Psamanthe’, which now hangs in the same room at the Lady Lever Art Gallery.

Lord Leighton's painting and sculpture were much influenced by Greek and Roman statues and by High Renaissance painting by artists like Titian and Michelangelo. Many of his subjects were drawn from ancient myth, legend and history. He was the leader of the Victorian Classical school of painters - an important strand in British painting between about 1860 and 1900. His nickname among some of his fellow academicians was 'Jupiter Olympus'. ‘Punch' magazine cartoonists often caricatured him as Zeus.

There was little critical comment on the ‘Fatidica' when it was exhibited. The ‘Athenaeum' magazine praised it as ‘an exercise in pure marble - white'. The critic George Moore, a great supporter of the Impressionists, dismissively declared that Fatidica was nothing but ‘a lady in canonical draperies in an armchair'.

In composing his picture Leighton seems to have been inspired by paintings by two other artists. The positioning of the figure on a throne is very suggestive of Michelangelo's similar figures of female sibyls painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It has also been suggested that Leighton may have been influenced by Sir Joshua Reynolds's painting of ‘Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse', now in Dulwich Picture Gallery. Reynolds also modelled his portrait of Mrs Siddons upon Michelangelo's figures.

Leighton's use of white is among the most striking features of this picture. White was a colour that he had used very often to great effect - especially as a contrast to other colours or as a foil for richer tones. However in few of his other subjects did he use it so forcefully and forthrightly as here. He seems to have sought to achieve an effect that is dependent upon very subtle tonal harmonies. Other artists during the later 19th century had experimented in a similar way using one colour or very few colours. Whistler is perhaps the most notable of these. He actually titled certain of his pictures after colours, like ‘Symphony in White No 1' or ‘Arrangement in Grey and Black; the artist's mother' and so on. Despite Leighton's classicism he was open to ideas from other artists whose work at first sight seems so very different from his own.

The group of pictures by Leighton at the Lady Lever Art Gallery include some of his most famous works. There are other examples of his pictures and sculpture at the Walker and two superb small oils at Sudley House in Mossley Hill.