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Can you imagine removing a false panel over your fireplace and discovering Flaming June behind it? That's what happened to a home owner in 1962, in a house outside London. Once uncovered, the painting wound up quickly with a London dealer credited with rehabilitating Victorian art, a style which had been long out of favour. The dealer swiftly sold it to Luis A. Ferré, the founder of the Museo de Art de Ponce in Puerto Rico, and René Taylor, the museum's first director who worked with the founder to build a collection of Victorian-era painting for the new museum, which was founded in 1959.
Flaming June,by the English painter, Frederic Leighton (1830–96), the subject both of the Frick's exhibition and this publication, was the highlight of the Royal Academy's Annual Exhibition in 1895, and the centrepiece of Lord Leighton's contribution to the exhibition as President of the Royal Academy. The painting was so well documented in its time that the new owners were able to have a new frame made for it exactly like the one in which it appeared in its debut exhibition and now appears at the Frick, with gold ionic columns on either side of the painting supporting a classical plinth across the top of the painting and sitting on a simple, handsome base.
Flaming Juneis currently exhibited in the Frick's oval room where the museum is also displaying its four full-length Whistler portraits. It's a nice juxtaposition because Leighton and James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) were near exact contemporaries. Their career paths were very different, as was their attitude toward the physical construction of their paintings. Leighton's meticulously painted canvases have a high degree of finish while Whistler’s brushwork was more free, and he used thin veils of paint with flattened figures. But both shared the concept of ‘art for art's sake’, a principle of the Aesthetic movement popular among many artists in the 19th century.
Artists interested in Aestheticism gave greater importance to the use of colour and line than to subject matter and believed in the independent value of art, tending to avoid a didactic, moral or political purpose. Leighton and Whistler created paintings in which colour and line are primary, but also evoke mood or character.
The two catalogue texts in the Frick's publication provide a well-written exploration in depth of the influences upon the artist's creation of the pose of Flaming June by Michelangelo's sculpture of “Night” in the Medici Chapel in Florence. They also explain the importance of the intensely fragrant and voluptuous oleander flower (which rests on the ledge above the figure's head). In Victorian poetry it was a reference to both sleep and death.
The creative direction that Leighton took is described and beautifully illustrated through reproductions of the many sketches of the posed figure – once he had decided on the very circular pose – nude, then draped, then eventually tucked into a square format, then literally squared for transfer to the canvas. Also reproduced (and shown in the Frick's exhibition) is a tiny oil sketch for the painting.
A comparison between the oil sketch and the finished painting is a useful reminder to us all, when studying any artist's work, that the process can be fluid right up to completion. You can just imagine the artist, having decided that the painting's frame would be a handsome architectural form, that he couldn't possibly have what looks like the fringe of a beach umbrella over his figure, and changing it to a straight border with classical palmette leaves. And look! The Mediterranean landscape he painted in 1867 (also reproduced in the publication), which he used in the background – why did he choose to move the distant island from one side to the other? This was probably because its original placement interferes with the rise of the figure's right shoulder. And so on.
This is a handsome publication, well worth reading even if you're not particularly interested in Victorian painting, but if you're interested in the artistic process, it's right up your alley. And the exhibition is a treat. The Frick's collection is very rich in beautiful paintings of women and this one fits right in.
Leighton's Flaming June by Susan Grace Galassi and Pablo Pérez D'Orsis published by The Frick Collection, New York, 2015.56pp., 26 illus, $14.95 (pbk). ISBN 978-0-912114-63-7