Frederic Leighton and the Eternal Mediterranean

Enigmatic and evocative, the canvases of Frederic Leighton (1830–1896) revitalized the World of British Art in the last third of the 19th century with his personal interpretation of the Greco-Roman world. The Museo de Arte de Ponce exhibition Frederic Leighton and the Eternal Mediterranean featured 18 works (paintings with female figures, small oil landscapes, color sketches, and preparatory drawings for Flaming June) on loan from the Leighton House Museum in London, which were displayed along with others from the Museum’s collection to deepen Leighton’s contacts with his contemporaries. The exhibition, which is the first dedicated to the artist in America, provides a unique opportunity to immerse yourself in the fascinating personal universe of the creator of Flaming June and enjoy the art of one of the most important artists of the nineteenth century.

Leighton is a lover of beauty, which does not prevent him from being also a complex artist. One of his constants is the female figure, and his muse par excellence was actress Dorothy Deene, immortalized in her most famous work. Flaming June is a painting that presents the viewer with a riddle as beautiful as it is indecipherable. Invites you to look again and again and yet never reveals exactly what we are seeing – a personification of the month of June, or of the sun? A reflection on the aesthetic link between sleep and death? Even with references to antiquity, the painting transcends any historical or even narrative context. Similar works in the exhibition seem to negate the distance between the imagined and the real Mediterranean, between Homer’s Greece and the land described in the guides with which Leighton prepared his travels.

In contrast to its relatively insular setting, Leighton was from a young age a European and cosmopolitan artist. His passion was the Mediterranean, which he toured throughout his life (from Spain to Syria passing Italy, Greece, Egypt and North Africa). In almost every place he visited, Leighton painted exquisite sketches of landscapes that until recently have been his least well-known facet. They are intimate works, made for pleasure; Leighton said painting them was “the most irresponsible and relaxing thing,” and the best pastime. These small memories, which can be seen in the exhibition, sometimes served to provide details of larger paintings and also decorated the walls of the studio and other more private rooms, such as their bedroom. On the artist’s death, more than 250 of these landscapes were found in his home, now spread across museums and private collections.

The exhibition also explores the creative process of Flaming June, one of the artist’s latest paintings. Flaming June presented himself to the public at the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition in 1895 with four other works that together reveal the essence of Leighton’s vision as an artist, condensed after decades of observation, work and travel. Leighton is able to conjure an entire universe using only a female figure and a background, which are the result of a careful process in which nothing is left to chance. This way of painting is radically opposite to that of other of his more modern contemporaries, such as the Impressionists; in this sense, Leighton’s death can be seen as the end of an era.

Following Flaming June’s success at the Royal Academy, Leighton undertook what would be his last voyage. In one of his sketches the painter captures like no one the dry air, heat and light of Algiers, which were part of the angina treatment prescribed by his doctor. On his return to England, the painter was confined to his house and, later, to his bedroom. From his small bachelor bed Leighton could see several of his landscape sketches, his most irresponsible pastime. Perhaps, as he closed his eyes, he would remember the sunsets of places like Capri, Cairo, Damascus… On his deathbed, Leighton received from Queen Victoria a noble title (Lord Leighton of Stratton), a privilege that had never been granted before to another British artist. It honored a life dedicated to art, and created a name that is now synonymous with Victorian Art.