Frederic, Lord Leighton, P.R.A. (1830-1896)

Frederic, Lord Leighton, P.R.A. (1830-1896)

Venus and Cupid

oil on canvas; in original frame
58 x 18¾in. (147.4 x 47.6cm.)
Private Collection, Ireland
Ernest Rhys, Sir Frederic Leighton, 1895, pp.10, 65-6
Mrs Russell Barrington, The Life, Letters and Work of Frederic Leighton, 1906, I, pp.248-9; II, pp.45-6, 382
Edgcumbe Staley, Lord Leighton of Stretton, PRA, 1906, pp.54-5, 232 Leonée and Richard Ormond, Lord Leighton, 1975, pp.35, 38, 151 (no.31, as 'untraced')
Linda S. Ferber and William H. Gerdts, The New Path, Ruskin and the American Pre-Raphaelites, exh. Brooklyn Museum, 1985, cat. pp.119 and 132, note 61
Susan P. Casteras, English Pre-Raphaelitism and its Reception in America in the Nineteenth Century, 1990, pp.54, 195 (note 59)
Christopher Newall, The Art of Lord Leighton, 1990, pp.24-5
Manchester, Royal Manchester Institution, 1856, no.241 or 368
Selected for the exhibition of British art which toured New York, Philadelphia and Boston 1857-8, but not exhibited (see below)

Lot Essay

This picture is an important rediscovery. Painted within a year of the famous Cimabue's Madonna (Royal Collection, on loan to the National Gallery), it is well recorded, having been exhibited in 1856 and mentioned both in Mrs Barrington's early monograph on Leighton (1906) and the Ormonds' more recent study (1975). The Ormonds, however, record it as 'untraced', and there was apparently not even an engraving or old photograph to give us the composition before its rediscovery in an Irish private collection.

Cimabue's celebrated Madonna is carried in procession through the Streets of Florence had been painted in Rome and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1855. Marking the debut of the twenty-four year old artist, it had caused a sensation and been bought by the Queen herself. Leighton spent the summer in London, being introduced to society by his friends the Sartorises and meeting members of the artistic community, including Ruskin, Rossetti and G.F. Watts. In the autumn he moved to Paris to complete his long continental apprenticeship, remaining there for the next four years until he finally settled in London in 1859.

Paris had an unsettling effect on Leighton. As he wrote at the time, he could 'sometimes... neither play, nor read, nor draw, nor do anything for five minutes together for sheer restlessness and fidgets.' Much of this must have been due to his new artistic environment, so disconcertingly at variance with the Nazarene training he had received in Frankfurt and Rome. His interest in contemporary French painting ranged widely; it was now, for instance, that he conceived the admiration for Delacroix and Corot which was to have such a marked effect on his activity as a collector. But so far as his work was concerned the most fruitful contacts were with exponents of the academic tradition. He met Ingres, who, though often 'bearish beyond measure', turned out to be 'exceedingly courteous', and Ary Scheffer, who told him: 'If I did not attach considerable importance to your talent, I should not have mounted three flights of stairs to see you'. He learnt much technically from Henri Robert-Fleury, a history painter with whom he became friendly; and he seems to have admired the work of the 'Neo-Greeks', whose essays in classical genre anticipate many of his own later paintings. Parallels of this kind also exist with the work of William Bouguereau and Alexander Cabanel, both pupils of the 'Neo-Greek' painter Francois Picot; and in the case of Bouguereau there is evidence of actual acquaintance.

The effects of all this were immediately apparent in his painting. Abandoning his Italian Renaissance themes, he plunged into a classical allegory, The Triumph of Music, showing Orpheus playing to Pluto for the return of Euridice. The influences were not well absorbed and the picture was slated when exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1856, a sorry sequel to the success of Cimabue's Madonna. However, in two other pictures, our Venus and Cupid and a companionpiece, Pan (also missing in 1975 but since rediscovered and now on loan to Leighton House), he was more successful. Robert Browning, whom he met in Rome, described them in a letter to the American sculptress Harriet Hosmer: 'He has a capital Pan enjoying himself in a dell, ... and a Venus, very clever too; and designs for perhaps a dozen delicious pagan figures; a sudden taste that has possessed him.' The pictures were also admired when exhibited in Watts's studio at Little Holland House in London. Watts wrote that they made his own work look 'flat and dim. There are some wonderful things in them evincing a wonderful perception of natural effects, and power of carrying them away in the memory and embodying them upon canvas.'

Both pictures were exhibited in 1856 at the Manchester Institution, and were selected for the exhibition of British paintings which toured America in 1857-8. However, having crossed the Atlantic they were, according to Leighton, deemed unsuitable for public display 'on account of their nudity, and stowed away in a cupboard.' Leighton was understandably annoyed, and got William Michael Rossetti, who had organised the exhibition, to write demanding that they be 'sent back at once'. According to Edgcumbe Staley (loc. cit.), they were returned in time for Leighton to exhibit the Venus, now retitled Nymph and Cupid, at the Society of British Artists in 1858. However, it does not appear in the catalogue, although another work mentioned by Staley, A Reminiscene of Algiers, was exhibited.

The art-historical significance of the new discovery needs no emphasis. Leighton's 'sudden taste' for 'pagan figures' in 1856 was clearly a response to his exposure to French classicism, and Venus and Cupid helps us to gauge the influence of this on the transition from his early romantic phase to his later career as a classicist in the European tradition. The Ormonds describe Venus Disrobing of 1866-7 (their cat. 124, pl.111) as his 'first important classical nude.' The description can now be transferred to Venus and Cupid, painted a full ten years earlier.

The picture's rich tones and unashamed enjoyment of the nude confirm what Cimabue's Madonna had already indicated, that Leighton was a keen student of Venetian painting. As early as 1849, during a brief stay in Paris, he had copied Titian's Entombment in the Louvre, but now it was such canvases as Giorgione's Concert champëtre or Veronese's Marriage at Cana that seem to have inspired him. His work would in fact become increasingly 'Venetian' during the next few years, in common with that of many of the English artists - Watts, Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Whistler and others - with whom he was now in touch. As for the figure of Cupid, it suggests that during his visits to the Louvre Leighton gave more than a passing glance at the Correggios. This again would have been a revived the experience of 1849, when he had copied the artist's Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine.

Whatever its influences, Venus and Cupid is a fascinating early experiment in imagery that would obsess Leighton to the end of his life. The full-length female nude is the obvious example, but what makes Venus so interesting as a harbinger of things to come is her pose, the motif of hands held above the head being one to which he would return time and again. The strong architectural framework is another recurring compositional idea, as is the delightfully romantic background of orange bushes and other trees silhouetted against a yellow evening sky.

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