Frederick Leighton was the virtuoso among Victorian classical artists, truly the Jove among the Victorian Olympians. Renowned for his noble appearance, superhuman energy, and exquisite artistic skill that matched his artistic ambition, Leighton was critical in transforming England's classical revival from what might have been a passing phase into a serious movement (Wood, 33). As President of the Royal Academy of Art, he sought to elevate England's arts to complement her position as a major world power.
Of the many different expressions of Victorian classicism, Lord Leighton's epitomized the academic style (Barrow, 15). His aesthetic focus was Greece, not Rome. He explained to his former teacher, Edward von Stein, that he was "passionate for the true Hellenic art, and am touched beyond everything by its noble simplicity and unaffected directness" (Cited in Wood, 23). For Leighton, Hellenic classicism expressed through mythological subjects or antique sculpture represented what he felt was archetypal beauty. His emphasis on that ideal, writes Robert Barrow, "was aimed at ennobling and elevating the British public, whom Leighton envisioned as the natural inheritors of the Periclean age" (Barrow, 15).
Leighton's classicism stuck a balance between didacticism and aestheticism. He believed firmly in high classical ideals — order, harmony, unity, and perfection — and condemned the romantic ideals of inspiration and individual feeling (Wood, 24). Yet Leighton's classicism was not archaeological or totally pedantic. While he did paint great classical myths, his ideal was beauty and his approach was aesthetic. Leighton cared little for reconstructing classical antiquity or touting the republican virtues or stern morality of ancient Greeks or Romans (Wood, 46). Thus Leighton, like the aesthetes, wished to free art from the moralistic straight-jacket supposedly championed by Ruskin, who believed artists should be more concerned with "stern facts" and not with "fair pictures" (Wood, 25).
Although Leighton's art did not inculcate moral lessons as Ruskin would have preferred, it was not completely devoid of didactic value. He approached moralism as a Victorian aesthete. Art, he said, "cannot have for its highest duty the conveying of ethic truths," but it nevertheless had to have a high and serious purpose to uplift, enlighten and inspire (Wood, 24-5). "Leighton and his generation," writes Wood, "took the view that good art was bound to exercise a benevolent and civilizing influence over mankind" (Wood, 25). In short, Leighton never went as far as the art for art's sake ideals of extreme aesthetes such as Whistler or Swinburne, or the opposite extreme of Ruskin's morality.
Leighton's 1869 Daedalus and Icarus exemplifies his ability to use classical language to express very Victorian aesthetic ideas. The subject is taken from Ovid's Metamorphoses (VIII) and depicts Daedalus, the great inventor, together with his son, Icarus. Daedalus designed a labyrinth for King Minos in which to imprison the Minotaur, the bestial offspring of the union of his wife, Queen Pasiphae, with a bull. Minos then incarcerated Daedalus himself, together with Icarus, to ensure the old man could not reveal the secret of the labyrinth. Daudalus conceived of an escape using wings made of feathers secured with wax, and cautioned his son not to fly too close to the sun. Icarus, however, ignored his father's warning and flying too close to the sun melted the wax and fell into the sea and drowned (Jones, 165).
The subject's immediate moral message — a warning of the danger of youthful arrogance in attempting to approach the gods — is of secondary importance. Obviously, Leighton was more concerned with the aesthetic potential of Icarus. "The subject [of Icarus] has," writes Steven Jones, "since the Renaissance, been a favorite opportunity for the representation of the male nude in art" (Jones, 165). Leighton chose to represent the moment when Daedalus warns his son as he straps on his new wings. Thus the painting provides the artist with a chance to give the male body full academic treatment.
Leighton's Icarus is a slim, smooth-limbed boy, whose figure and pose is modeled after an idealized Greek statue. Icarus' raised arm deliberately mirrors the statue standing prominently in the background atop a column. "Instead of a vigorous man of action," writes Wood, Icarus is "absorbed in his own beauty" (Wood, 50). So is Leighton. Icarus' body is simplified, lacking any significant musculature, and his skin is deliberately light, mimicking marble and bringing to mind Apollo. The striking contrast between Icarus' youthful depiction and his father's gnarled, tanned figure further highlights the boy's perfection.
The painting is very much a study in contrasts. Behind Icarus the magnificent deep blue sea is juxtaposed with azure of the sky, and the rocky coast dramatically intensifies the horizon. A similar color division exists between Icarus's violet drapery and his white wings. The painting's vivid color scheme increases its aesthetic appeal. But Daedalus and Icarus, like so many other subjects painted by Leighton, suffer from a glaring lack of emotion, for he intentionally focused on the decorative and academic aspects of classical figures, not dramatic emotions, something which the Art Journal mildly disapproved of in 1869:
This, perhaps, is the only picture in the exhibition which may be likened to a Greek cameo; indeed the style is almost more plastic than pictorial; the outline is sharply cut as marble, the surface is smooth as a highly finished bas-relief. The manner may be pushed little far; yet pictures of this poetic thought, classic, beauty, and ideal treatment, are but too rare in our English school. (Cited in Jones, 165)
Icarus is static and sculpturelike, entirely keeping with Leighton's preferred means of expression. Nevertheless, the painting is beautiful and epitomizes Leighton's aesthetically oriented classicism.
Barrow, Robert. Lawrence Alma-Tadema. London, New York, 2001.
Jones, Stephen et al. Fredrick, Lord Leighton, Eminent Victorian Artist. New York: HN Abrams, 1996.
Wood, Christopher. Olympian Dreamers: Victorian Classical Painters, 1860-1914. London: Constable, 1983.
Last modified 15 May 2007