Frederic Leighton
Biography of British Classical Painter & Sculptor.

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The Bath of Psyche (1890)
Tate Britain. By Frederic Leighton.

Frederic Leighton (1830-1896)

A major figure in Victorian art, the eminent English painter, sculptor and illustrator Sir Frederic Leighton was at the forefront of the revival of Neoclassical art that took place in England in the 1860s. His output included book illustrations and portraits, but he is best remembered for his painting of Greek and Roman subjects, many with rich colour schemes as exemplified by Garden of the Hesperides (1892, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight). Highly prolific, he trained at the Stadel Institute in Frankfurt and privately in Rome. He gained early success in his artistic career when Queen Victoria bought his first major work Cimabue's celebrated Madonna is Carried in Procession Through the Streets of Florence (1855, Collection of Queen Elizabeth II). Some critics believe that - not unlike the genre painter William Powell Frith (1819-1909) - what he lacked in talent, he more than made up for with charm, a sensuous vision, and hard work. He is credited with revitalizing British sculpture with his bronze Athlete Struggling with a Python (1874-7, Leighton House, London).

Influenced by 17th century French and Italian Masters, Leighton not only contributed greatly to the tradition of English figurative painting, he also developed an exceptional sense of colour. In 1878 he was elected President of the Royal Academy, and in 1896 he became the only English-painter ever to be created a peer. He is still regarded by some critics as one of the best English painters of the Victorian era - his pictures were hugely popular through the sale of mass-produced prints - and one of the country's most highly regarded sculptors of the nineteeenth century. Another English artist of the 19th century to combine painting and sculpture, is Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-73), best known for his paintings of dogs and bronze lions at the base of Nelson's column in Trafalgar Square, London.

The Reconciliation of the Montagues
and Capulets (1854)
Yale Center for British Art.

For an idea of the pigments
used by Frederic Leighton, see:
Colour Palette Nineteenth Century.

For 20th century artists, see:
British Painting: Contemporary.

For an explanation of the
terminology, see:
Art: Definition and Meaning.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.
For the greatest portraitists
see: Best Portrait Artists.
For the top allegorical painting,
see: Best History Painters.

For the best works, see:
Greatest Modern Paintings.

Artistic Training

Leighton was born in Scarborough, Yorkshire. His father was a former doctor to the Russian Royal family in St Petersburg, and had amassed a certain wealth. Leighton senior supported his son's career as an artist by providing him with an allowance for most of his life. Leighton wrote of his family: "My parents surrounded me with every facility to learn drawing, but strongly discountenanced the idea of my becoming a full-time artist unless I could be eminent." His encouragement began at an early age. In 1840, he learnt drawing in Rome. When his family then moved to Berlin he attended classes at the Academy. In 1843 he was sent to school at Frankfurt, spending the winter of 1844 in Florence, where his future as an artist was decided. In Frankfurt he trained within rigorous academic traditions at the Stadel Institute, with the Nazarene painter Eduard Jakob von Steinle (1810-86). The Nazarene group were 19th century German Romantic painters who aimed to revive the simplicity and beauty of Christian art. The movement had an influence on the English Pre-Raphaelite movement.


Leighton returned to England to take a degree at University College, London, after which he moved to Italy and studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti. Fluent in German, Italian, French and English, he could easily have pursued a career on the continent, but the path of success was being laid in the country of his birth. In 1855, while still in Rome, he executed his first important oil painting, Cimabue's celebrated Madonna is Carried in Procession Through the Streets of Florence. It showed at the Royal Academy in the same year, and caused such a sensation that it was bought by Queen Victoria. After this, not unlike his contemporary Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), the main purpose of Leighton's life was the realization of visions of beauty suggested by classical myth and history.

Mature Career

Although his reputation in England was now assured, Leighton now moved to Paris where he remained for five years. There, he developed a heightened sense of colour, based on 17th century French and Italian Masters. He displayed a preference for Classical subjects, which were initially emotionally tense, such as his Orpheus and Eurydice (1894, Leighton House Art Gallery, London). Gradually the subject matter became more dispassionate. In 1860 he returned to London, where he associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (established in 1848). The movement was founded by William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), along with John Everett Millais (1829-96) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82). The group rejected what they considered to be the mechanical approach of Mannerist artists who succeeded the High Renaissance. They also believed that the Classical poses of the Renaissance painter Raphael (1483-1520) in particular were corrupting influences on art, hence the name Pre-Raphaelite. In London, Leighton became an associate of the Royal Academy in 1868 and President in 1878.


Like several other painters of the day, notably George Frederick Watts (1817-1904), Leighton also executed a few pieces of sculpture. Thus in 1877 he carved Athlete Wrestling with a Python, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy, and which was considered at the time to have inaugurated a new Renaissance in British sculpture. He also produced The Sluggard (1886) a statue of equal merit, as well as Needless Alarms (1886), a charming figurine of a nude girl looking over her shoulder at a frog.

Other important 19th century sculptors include: Honore Daumier (1808-1879), Auguste Preault (1809-1879), Alfred Stevens (1817-75), Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875), Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904).

Aesthetic Movement

Leighton was also associated with the Aestheticism movement in Britain during the 1870s and 1880s. Standing for the reverence of pure beauty in art and design, its motto was 'art for art's sake'. In painting, it was exemplified in works by the late Impressionist Whistler (1834-1903), the neoclassicist Albert Moore (1841-93) and Leighton.

Leighton House

In 1864 Leighton bought a plot of land in Holland Park Road, London and began work on a new home. The house became an important development for him, mid-career. Designed by the architect George Aitchison (1825-1910), the building looks bland from the outside, but is overwhelmingly decorated on the inside. A popular visitor centre today, the house is full of mosaic art and fountains covered in gold leaf. Every inch of the house is decorated with rare tiles, examples of Orientalist painting, Persian carpets and ceramics. Leighton held popular receptions at the house on Sundays, to which artists, musicians, poets, journalists and members of the Royal family attended. As his guests circulated they could view the artists' own works, along with Old Masters such as Titian (1488-1579), Tintoretto (1518-94), and modern French Masters like Camille Corot (1796–1875), Eugene Delacroix (1798–1863) and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867). Also his collection included works by many of his contemporaries such as Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833–98), John Everett Millais, Symbolist and Pre-Raphaelite sculptor and painter GF Watts, and Giovanni Costa (1826-1903). He was also a significant influence on younger artists including the romantic painter John William Waterhouse (1849-1917).

Royal Academy

Leighton seemed to have stepped into the role of unofficial ambassador for British art. It was almost inevitable on the death of the President of the Royal Academy of Arts Sir Francis Grant, in 1878, that Leighton should be chosen to succeed him. To a certain extent, the artist lived his life in public, never marrying or being known for romantic attachments. His house did not even have a guest room, for he never had guests. On his death, he left the house to the local council, who opened it as a museum. At the cost of £1.6 million, it was recently restored to its former glory, re-opening in April 2010.

Leighton died in 1896 and was buried in St Paul's Cathedral, London. In additions to his paintings and sculptures, he left behind a large number of exquisite sketches and studies, as well as a number of sketch models in wax for the figures in his paintings. Leighton's works appear in the collections of the best art museums and institutions in Britain, notably the Royal Academy in London.

• For more biographies of 19th century English artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For details of significant art movements in England, see: History of Art.
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