Flaming June by Frederic Lord Leighton, P. R. A. (1830-1896). 1895. Oil on canvas; 46 inches x 46 inches. Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico. [Click on this and the following images to enlarge them.]

Provenance: Exhibited, the Royal Academy, 1895, no.5; James Leathart, his sale, Christie's, 19 June, 1897 (lot 39, bought by Corns). The Royal Academy, Winter Exhibition, 1897, no. 18 (lent by Mrs. Leathart — label attached). — George Landow

The painting in its frame. "Flaming June: The making of an Icon." Installation shot at Leighton House Museum. Photo: Kevin Moran. Courtesy: Leighton House Museum.

This iconic painting was "brought home" to Leighton's studio again for an exhibition at the Leighton House Museum running from 4 November 2016 - 2 April 2017. The exhibition is a key event for several reasons, first and foremost because of the fame of the painting itself:

Depicting a sensual, sun-drenched, sleeping female figure wrapped in orange draperies against a Mediterranean backdrop, the exhibition explores the extraordinary story of this picture, from its creation in Leighton's studio, its first critical reception at the Royal Academy, through its "disappearance" in the middle of the twentieth century, its acquisition by Luis A. Ferré, Governor of Puerto Rico for the Museo de Arte de Ponce in 1963 and subsequent rise to international fame as one of the most memorable and reproduced images in the whole of British art. [Flaming June]

But this exhibition is important for another reason, too. Uniquely, it displays the painting with several others by Leighton which he exhibited at the Royal Academy in the same year (1895), and which, remarkably, were photographed on their easels in the studio before being submitted.

Left: The painting as original seen in Leighton's studio, by Bedford Lemere, 1 April 1895. © Historic England. Right: Another installation shots at Leighton House Museum: the paintings on display at the 2016-07 exhibition, in the same studio. Both images courtesy of Leighton House Musuem.

The other four paintings in the group are: The Maid with Golden Hair, Twixt Hope and Fear, Candida and Lachrymae. Leighton was already ailing at this time and would die very early in the following year. Consequently, these works, taken together, not only "make a fascinating and revealing group, representative of themes and subjects that had informed Leighton's work over the preceding decades," but "represent his last statement as an artist and allow a reappraisal of his achievements, relating these five works back to the career that led up to their production and understanding the legacy of a creative life that was close to its end" (Flaming June).

But perhaps "statement" is not quite the right word here. Flaming June alone is so resonant that it is hard to resolve its inherent contradictions. Claude Phillips (1846-1924), a contemporary art critic, who realised that this was the "chief" among Leighton's "four elaborate contributions to the Academy," nevertheless saw the painting simply as a portrait of a young woman taking her "mid-day siesta in the most uncomfortable and complicated attitude that could well be devised" (449). But to modern eyes the beautiful woman in the early summer sunshine, in the very bloom of her own maturity, prompts a variety of interpretations. For instance, she may be waiting to be wakened, like so many other Victorian sleeping beauties. Yet the flower in the upper right-hand corner is the poisonous oleander. Like figures shown in the last repose of death in many a Victorian painting, illustration or sculpture, this most glowing, relaxed and unperturbed woman may be therefore be closer to death and dissolution than to a romantic awakening. In fact, the sense of withdrawal and detachment on the sleeper's part, and the observer's own instinct to be silent and tiptoe away, make this quite a disturbing picture. Some other artists' works on this theme hint more obviously at either erotic or morbid thoughts, or both. But, thanks to the colour of this subject's robes and her long luxurious tresses (at once alluring and flowing away like the current of life itself), none is more arresting — or perplexing. — Jacqueline Banerjee

Other Views (courtesy of Leighton House Museum, 2016)

Related Materials

Bibliography

"Flaming June: The Making of an Icon — 4 November 2016 - 2 April 2017." The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea — Museums — Leighton House Museum. Web. 11 December 2016.

Ormond Leoné and Richard. Lord Leighton. London: Yale UP, 1975.

Phillips, Claude. "Fine Art: The Royal Academy." The Academy. Vol. 47 (Jan.-June 1895). Internet Archive. Contributed by Robarts Library, University of Toronto. Web. 11 December 2016.

"Phillips, Claude, Sir [after 1911]." Dictionary of At Historians. Web. 11 December 2016.

Wood, Christopher. Olympian Dreamers: Victorian Classical Painters. London: Constable, 1983.


Last modified 11 December 2016