Gateway to the Classics: Great Artists: Volume Four by Jennie Ellis Keysor
Great Artists: Volume Four by  Jennie Ellis Keysor

"As a draughtsman, he is learned and thorough, correct and elegant, with a fine sense of the rhythm of line; and his modeling is fine as well as subtle. He is truly a master of form, as is seen not only in his pictures but in the too few pieces of sculpture which he has executed."

Cosmo Monkhouse

"Sir Frederick Leighton has never lowered the standard of his work in deference to any popular demand, and for this persistent devotion to his own highest ideals he deserves well of all who share his faith in the power of beauty."

Comyns Carr

"Leighton remained in his later period as in his youth, generously alive to all the things that count, devoted still to the art, the current life, and the great national traditions of his own country."

Ernest Rhys


Sir Frederick Leighton

Sir Frederick Leighton


In a former sketch we have outlined the life of Millais, the famous English artist, and given careful attention to the school of painting to which he belonged, the Pre-Raphaelites. One year after Millais was born, at Scarborough, a bleak coast town far up on the eastern shore of England, Frederick Leighton first saw the light. Both men were destined to be great, and evidences of their power were early shown. Both men worked along similar art lines and both were the darlings of their countrymen. Both received titles of nobility from their queen and honorary degrees from the great universities. Both became President of the Royal Academy, and both died within a short time of each other, while they were yet in the position of President. Looking cursorily over these two lives covering so nearly the same expanse of years and devoted to the same art, we are inclined to look for rivalry, not altogether of the genial sort. Our surprise, however, is great when we find that this is not so and that throughout their lives there was the purest and warmest friendship. This is to be accounted for largely owing to the breadth of the art of painting which was the common field of their activities. In the great house of painting there are many mansions, and the dwellers in one mansion can love and respect those occupying another. This is only another way of saying that the art of painting is so broad that there is room for all sorts of sincere workers, and while they work they may love and honor each other and learn from each other, too, without the painful rivalry which so often marks fellow craftsmen. While the Pre-Raphaelites, with Millais at their head, were pursuing, to an extent often extreme, that method in painting which strives to reproduce absolute truth to nature whether it be in attractive or unattractive details, Leighton was moving serenely and forcefully on in his chosen realm from which he would banish every ugly or unseemly object to make room for the total supremacy of Beauty.

Millais' followers thought no scene from humble life too insignificant to yield a lesson when transcribed by the painter's hand. Leighton, on the other hand, thought no divinely shaped god from Mount Olympus, no hero from legendary contests, too lofty to minister for beauty to the humblest dweller among men. Leighton rigidly excluded from his art all ugliness and seemed to joy in the plastic representation of his subjects, yet we find him on a visit to Naples spending days and days of painstaking work, exactly after the manner of the Pre-Raphaelites, on the drawing of a lemon tree. Here every detail of foliage and trunk is worked out with the strictest fidelity to nature. So perfect was the result as to call forth marked commendation from Ruskin, the art critic, who championed the method of Millais and his school.


Day Dreams

In the line of this discussion is the fact that in the Academy exhibit of 1855, where Leighton's first picture was displayed, Millais exhibited "The Rescue,"  that picture in which the heroism of firemen attending to their ordinary duties is immortalized. To the stern realism of this we may contrast that pictured poem, "Cimabue's Madonna Carried Through the Streets of Florence,"  which was the somewhat lengthy title of Leighton's elaborate picture. They were both very beautiful and set the art world thinking, not to decide which was the greater work, but of the immense field which painting presents where there is room for two such widely different sorts of treatment. It is worth while to mention that Holman Hunt's "Light of the World"  was also exhibited in 1855.

As we study and enjoy these two styles of painting, is there not for us a lesson which, if learned and applied, makes life more precious? That is, to study great men for the good there is in them without vainly giving thought and anxiety to the fact that they do not add to their list of powers those which grow in other men. Let us enjoy the work of the Pre-Raphaelites who made truth to nature the central fact of their art religion nor wish for it the roseate loveliness gathered from the myths or from old Greek history by the discriminating hand of Leighton. If we long for these latter things, let us turn to a study of Sir Frederick who, through his genius, has brought beauty into so many lives.

Frederick Leighton was born Dec. 3, 1830. His father and grandfather had been physicians of marked ability. His mother was a delicate woman of exquisite refinement. That his grandfather had served two emperors of Russia as court physician and that his father, when deafness made it impracticable for him to follow medicine, took up philosophy instead, are hardly facts on which to base the artistic tendencies of the boy Frederick, and yet they are interesting in themselves. To those who believe strongly that we inherit our tendencies either from our parents or from our more remote ancestors, there is a problem in the fact that all three of the children born into the Scarborough doctor's family afterwards became more or less renowned in the world of art and music. A sister, Mrs. Sutherland Orr, is well known to us through her interesting and exhaustive life of the poet, Robert Browning. The most we can say in this connection is that these children were born into a home of plenty and refinement and that their parents had the means and inclination to encourage them to pursue the lines along which their respective tastes seemed to lead.



The young Frederick began the preparation for his life work at the early age of ten, when he went abroad with his mother, who was in poor health. This was the beginning of a residence abroad which was almost uninterrupted until the age of thirty, when he took up his abode in London and there continued to reside until his death. When only eleven, we find him with his family in Rome taking lessons from Francesco Meli. A few years later the family is in Florence, and here the boy delivered to his father his decision to become a painter. Though so young, his father took note of the declaration and consulted Hiram Powers, the American sculptor, then resident in Italy. The story is told that the elder Leighton said to Powers, regarding his son: "Shall I make him an artist?" The sculptor, who had some knowledge of young Leighton's work, said somewhat vehemently: "Sir, you have no choice in the matter; he is one already." After which he added: "He may become as eminent as he pleases." This, which was then prophecy, has all come true, even to the last words which must have seemed extreme to the father as he weighed against the possibilities of success the probabilities of failure.

The father, however, accepted the judgment and put the boy in training in the schools of Florence. There were some drawbacks to receiving an art education in Florence in those days. To be sure there was the memory and the ever-present monuments of the glorious past of art, but into the schools had crept all sorts of studied ways of doing things. In after days, however, Leighton was able to study at so many different places, particularly at Berlin and Frankfurt, that he in time was trained out of any errors which he adopted in his early Florentine days.

One teacher especially we must notice as corrective of the false methods which Leighton had learned and this was Steinle, an artist not familiar to many people and yet perhaps the greatest power for good art in our artist's early years. It was at Frankfurt that Leighton became his pupil and from the beginning of their association together the pupil grew gradually great. It should be remembered here that Steinle was one of a school of painters in Germany, founded by Overbeck, whose members were nicknamed Nazarenes from the intensely religious spirit that they cultivated. In their admiration for the Italian masters before Raphael and in their effort after an all-pervasive spiritual influence, they were much like the Pre-Raphaelites of England. That a master of this order should have been the most potent influence in the art life of a man like Leighton, where formality and finish counted for so much, is a very remarkable fact.

For years it was Steinle whose advice was sought whenever Leighton undertook any important new picture, and it was he who gave the artist a letter introducing him to Cornelius, another Nazarene, when he should return to Rome.

For a time Leighton studied and worked in Brussels. Here he painted a picture of "Cimabue Finding the Boy Giotto."  Though not now listed among his important pictures, it was an attractive canvas and showed how the artist's mind was dwelling on the subject of his first great picture. It was a charming subject for a painting surely. We all know what that story was and yet we like to rehearse it—how the princely painter Cimabue, in his wanderings in the fields one day, came upon a little shepherd boy trying to draw one of his sheep with a piece of charcoal on a rough stone and how Cimabue took him home with him and trained him and he became the versatile Giotto, the father of all that is exalted in Italy's greatest period of painting.

After spending some time in various schools of Paris, Leighton returned to Italy, whose warm beauty he seemed destined in later years to keep alive in the colder region of England. On his way thither he had visited Steinle and consulted with him regarding a great new picture which was in his mind and obtained the letter to Cornelius above referred to.

The time at which Leighton settled down in Rome was indeed a fortunate time for any student of art. The Brownings, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett, were there, their happy home ever open to chance visitors. Here too Leighton met Thackeray, who wrote home to Millais, "Millais, my boy, I have met in Rome a versatile young dog called Leighton, who will one of these days run you hard for the presidentship," referring of course to the position of President of the Royal Academy. Mrs. Kemble was in Rome at this time and of artists there were his countryman, George Mason, and at least, two noted Frenchmen, Bouguereau and Gerome. Our own William Story, sculptor and poet, should be added to this as one worthy, both as artist and gentleman, to be numbered among this distinguished colony of English-speaking aliens. His home was one of the "open houses" in Rome in the happy days of the mid-century.

In 1851, Leighton visited the great Crystal Palace exposition in London, and four years later he exhibited his first picture in the Academy. This was the very elaborate canvas of "Cimabue's Madonna Carried Through the Streets of Florence."  The canvas was long and narrow, almost filling one side of the room where it was exhibited, and for this as well as for more substantial reasons, it attracted widespread attention. In the front of the procession are officers of the city, besides children and young men and women, singing and playing on musical instruments. A beautiful Gothic shrine adorns a wall just where this section of the procession ends. At this point is a stately figure clad in white and crowned with laurel. He leads by the hand a little boy, perhaps thirteen years old. We need not be told that these are Cimabue and the boy Giotto. Immediately behind them come the bearers of the Madonna picture. It is fixed on a standard, richly draped and borne by six men, while children with wreaths walk alongside. The picture is adorned with garlands, while great candles are placed on either side of it. Just following is a cluster of noted artists of Italy at the time the picture was painted, the thirteenth century, while the great Dante stands to one side looking on with a disdain more than natural perhaps. All the details of the landscape are perfect and the façade of the church of San Miniato, represented in the distance, is perfect as a photograph of this beloved church. It is a beautiful conception of one of the most interesting episodes in the history of painting. Mrs. Browning's words on the event spring to our lips and express our thought:

. . . "Bright and brave,

That picture was accounted, mark of old!

A king stood bare before its sovran grace;

A reverent people shouted to behold

The picture not the king. . . .

If any should

Because of some stiff draperies and loose joints

Gaze scorn down from the heights of Raphael-hood,

On Cimabue's picture,—Heaven anoints

The head of no such critic.

A noble picture! worthy of the shout

Wherewith along the streets the people bore

Its cherub faces."

In 1860, Leighton went to London, there to make his permanent home. He became a regular exhibitor at the Academy and was soon made an associate member of that august body. Later on he was admitted with full privileges and an Academician. These were the beginning of a long list of honors and titles which were distributed through the remaining years of his life. The highest of these along professional lines was when he was made President of the Royal Academy in 1879, while, from a worldly point of view, we may look with greatest favor upon his being knighted in 1879 and created Baron the very year of his death. Between the bestowing of titles indicative of rank and professional eminence were those such as the great universities of England and Scotland were glad to confer in view of his distinguished talent. Continental countries vied with England in heaping upon the fortunate artist all sorts of honors.

We shall speak in a more detailed manner of his pictures later on. Here suffice it to say that he worked incessantly and found a ready sale at good prices for his works. His careful finish, his beautiful subjects and his glowing color made his pictures exceedingly popular. No other paintings of the period were so highly decorative as his, and this was another reason for their popularity.

As early as 1867, he visited Turkey and Egypt and brought back to his art an added delight in color, which he made manifest in a general way in his pictures, besides painting several purely Oriental subjects. Perhaps even more than in his pictures he showed his love for eastern color and design in the famous Arab Hall in his new house on Holland Park Road, in Kensington.

His eastern visits were frequently repeated and at each time he brought back with him rare tapestries, bric-a-brac and, above all, tiles. Of these latter he had in his new house one of the finest collections in London. From Persia and the far East he gathered them, radiant and iridescent like opals. From Holland and the West he collected rare specimens, quaint in design and rich in coloring, until he was able to line whole rooms and his grand staircase with these rare tiles.

His house, while not unusually large among the fine residences of the vicinity, was altogether one of the most beautiful of London houses. There was the spacious drawing-room, with its fine pictures—dreamy Corots and dripping Constables. Among these last was that identical "Hay Wain,"  which had caused, on its exhibition in Paris, a revolution in French art—the death of the "grand style" of David and the rise of the nature-loving Barbizon school. In the hall the commanding object was a bronze statue of Icarus, and the stairway, though lined with rare tiles, was also thickly hung with pictures. Here was a Reynolds not quite finished, there, full in view, a fine copy of Angelo's Adam receiving the spark of life from the electrified finger of God. Here was a portrait by his friend Watts and there a genuine Tintoretto. Leaving the splendid stairway we turn into the great studio up stairs. An immense room is this filled with framed pictures and unfinished sketches, all in perfect order, for even the hidden places in Leighton's studio were clean and orderly. All around the room ran a copy of the Parthenon frieze. Below the large window were the wax models which the artist used in his work.

The last addition to the house was what Sir Frederick called the music room, built to receive his pictures, most of them gifts from contemporary artists. All the rooms were remarkable for their richness and the elegant taste of the master of the house, but the most unique was the divan, or Arab Hall. The designs for this room were drawn especially for Leighton by a friend of his who visited Moorish Spain for this purpose. Here is a description of it which ought to bring, in a certain sense, the enchantment which breathed out of so superb an apartment: "There is a dim dome above, and a fountain falling into a great black marble basin below; there are eight little arched windows of stained glass in the dome; and there are white marble columns, whose bases are green, whose capitals are carved with rare and curious birds, supporting the arches of the alcoves. The Cairo lattice-work in the lower arched recesses lets in only so much of the hot light of midsummer as consists with the coolness and the quiet and the perfect Oriental repose which give the chamber its spell."

Leighton was a man of fine presence, strikingly handsome. He had the manner of a perfect gentleman. In all his positions in life he was true to his obligations, as in his art, he was true to beauty. The best presiding officer the Royal Academy ever had, he was adored by the students no less for his eloquent lectures on art than for his individual helpfulness to them in their work.

His life was keyed to beauty of soul no less than to that of externals. He lived ever among his fellows as one who had always in mind the thought, "We pass this way but once." Fain would England and the world have retained even for a little longer this beauteous life, this shaper of beautiful ideals; but death and disease are no respecters of persons. He was obliged to give up his duties in the Academy on account of failing health. When he returned he could only answer anxious inquirers by the remark: "The cloud that hung over me hangs over me still." We know that that cloud descended and enveloped him at the opening of the year 1896, and the news went forth that Lord Leighton was dead. They buried him beside other artists in St. Paul's cathedral. Millais was unanimously chosen in his place as President of the Royal Academy. Less than eight months he filled the place and then he, too, descended beneath the weight of a similar cloud, to lay himself down beside Leighton to await, in dreamless sleep, the last great call.

From Leighton's fortunate and happy life let us turn to his works where posterity, who cannot otherwise know the richness of his nature, must form its estimate of the man and the artist.

For convenience, I have grouped these under the following heads: Mythological and legendary subjects, processionals, illustrations, and miscellaneous, such as idealized figures, portraits and landscapes.

Under the first head we have his best known and perhaps his most beautiful work. One of the earliest of these, bearing the date 1865, is "Helen of Troy."  It is a worthy representation of one of the loveliest passages in the Iliad. Iris has carried a message to white-armed Helen, whom she finds weaving a great purple web and embroidering thereon battle scenes between the Greeks and Trojans. The message in substance is this: "Come hither, fair lady, and see the doings of the horse-taming Trojans and mail-clad Greeks, for they that were but now fighting bloody battles for thy sake do now sit in silence leaning upon their shields." In Leighton's picture we see the lovely Helen arrayed in snowy robes followed by two attendants hastening along the ramparts that she may see her former husband, kinsfolk and friends. We need not comment on the beauty of the picture or the force with which the artist has caught the Greek spirit. The copy before us must do its own work. Of a similar sort is "Dædalus and Icarus,"  painted four years later. Here the unwisely ambitious father fastens wings of wax to the shoulders of his handsome son that he may soar aloft over mountains and seas. So absorbed is he in the execution of the wings, his own handiwork, that he cannot forecast the sad intelligence that those wings will melt in to-morrow's sun, leaving Icarus without glory save that which shall come from his name being given to the sea which puts out his young life.


Helen of Troy

If we seek stronger subjects from his group, turn to that wonderful picture where Hercules wrestles with Death for the body of Alcestis, the wife of Admetus, lying so still under its white pall. Strength of another sort we find in "Orpheus and Eurydice."  Here we see the fine Orpheus, with his laurel-bound head and his golden lyre, emerging from the dark regions of the earth whither he has gone to regain his dead wife, the beloved Eurydice. She entreats him to look at her, never knowing that the gods have made him promise that he will not gaze upon her face all the weary way from Hades to earth. In Leighton's conception we have the earnest, beseeching face of Eurydice, and the almost contorted face of Orpheus, in which the decision to keep his word with the gods is at war with the awful longing to gaze upon that dear face. Should he violate his promise she, whom he has redeemed from death, will be snatched from him forever. With such a penalty hanging over him, can we wonder at the agonized struggle depicted on his face?


Orpheus and Eurydice

The list of similar subjects which Leighton treated is a long one and from it it is difficult to make a choice. There is "Phryne,"  the beautiful woman that Praxiteles is supposed to have immortalized in the statue of the Venus of Melos, and there is Persephone, whom Hermes is presenting to her delighted mother, Ceres, after six months in the dark regions, or mayhap we have before us that simple but delightful picture of two "Greek Girls Playing Ball."  Here are gracefully floating draperies and vigorous action. If we wish to look, in contrast, on a picture where perfect quiet reigns, let us examine "Iphigenia and Cymon,"  where sleep, which is such an elusive thing, is marvelously represented to the eye. Here we have a still midsummer night, the moon-beams resting lightly upon the waters of the sea, and Iphigenia, a queen of perfect Greek type, stretched out upon her couch. Voluminous robes, edged with the Greek honeysuckle pattern in gold, fall over her lovely form. With her arm above her head she sleeps deeply. Her attendants likewise are in heavy slumber, while Cymon, apparently the only living creature thereabouts, gazes in awe upon the lovely sleeping woman. There is absolute rest and deep enjoyment in such a picture as this. Works of this class were distributed all through Leighton's working life, and of this sort was his very last picture, "Clytie."  To one who loved beauty as Sir Frederick Leighton did, there was a large measure of satisfaction in Greek subjects.


Greek Girls Playing Ball


Iphigenia and Cymon

We have called one class of his pictures processionals. Under this head we naturally class all those which contain a large number of figures even though they are not strictly processions. Heading this list, in date, if not in excellence, is the one already described, "Cimabue's Madonna,"  etc. To this we naturally add "The Captive Andromache,""The Syracusan Bride,""The Triumph of Music,"  and "The Daphnephoria."  Among these there is, of course, a peculiar interest in the Cimabue procession, because it was Leighton's first great picture, but the masterpiece is undoubtedly "The Daphnephoria."  There are some things to look up before we can thoroughly enjoy this wonderful work. The name itself comes from Daphne,  a lovely nymph, who, pursued by Apollo, was turned into a laurel tree. As this was the festival of the laurel in honor of Apollo we can see the appropriateness of the name Daphnephoria.  This feast was celebrated every nine years by the Bœotians at Thebes. It will be remembered that the Bœotians lived in Greece in the territory just north-east of Attica. The procession is represented as taking place in a wood, with Thebes in the distance. First comes a splendid youth, bearing a symbolical globe with all sorts of pendant globes and wreaths. Then follows, in exquisite white Greek robes, the honored one of the occasion, he who carries the laurel bough. Behind him comes a lovely chorus of young men, maidens and children, all laurel-crowned, and singing under the direction of a leader who bears a lyre and stands with his back to us. The procession itself charms us, but the details are even more delightful to study—the branches of flowers scattered about, those two figures on the wall near the globe-bearer, and those others in the foreground apparently drawing water—all are as beautiful as the most striking figures in the procession. As we study its varied excellencies, we are not surprised that it attracted the most favorable notice when it was exhibited in 1876, hostile critics even going out of their way to praise it.



Among Leighton's miscellaneous pictures there are many favorites. Among these, "Summer Moon"  takes high rank. It represents two women asleep in a round window, through which the stars shine. Another is "The Music Lesson,"  in which a young mother, or possibly an elder sister, instructs a little girl on an exquisitely finished lute. His portrait of himself, which he painted for the Uffizi, is very beautiful and, we are told, very life-like. He was skilful, too, in the painting of idealized figures. Of these we have several, among them "Biondina,""Letty,""Bianca,""Memories,"  all of which are very beautiful. Perhaps none of his pictures has been so popular as "Wedded."  Its perfect treatment has caused it to be looked upon as one of the most remarkable pictures of the period.


Summer Moon


The Music Lesson



In the wide field of illustration, Leighton did some strong work. Besides his Bible pictures, he illustrated very fully George Eliot's masterpiece, "Romola." Of his nine pictures representing Bible scenes, his "David"  seems the finest; at all events, it is a noble representation of a great character. There sits the psalmist, one hand resting on a marble parapet, looking out into a cloudy sky where two doves soar away. The expression of his grand old face seems to tell plainly that in his mind are his own immortal words, "Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! for then would I fly away and be at rest."

In sculpture he tried his hand, and it was not the hand of a novice, as a work like "The Wrestler and the Python"  shows.

As we look upon his work and note its range and its excellence, we are astounded by all that he accomplished, and we must feel grateful for his life which so abundantly brought beauty to charm and solace mankind.

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