Browse Lots

Global notice COVID-19 Important notice
Frederic, Lord Leighton, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1830-1896)
Frederic, Lord Leighton, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1830-1896)


Frederic, Lord Leighton, P.R.A., R.W.S. (1830-1896)
oil on canvas
50 5/8 x 37½ in. (128.5 x 95.2 cm.)
Arthur Manners.
Anonymous sale; Christie's, London, 11 October 1968, lot 104 (bt Old Hall Gallery, Iden, Sussex).
Stanley G. Harris, Portland, Oregon.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, Belgravia, 9 July 1974, lot 48, where purchased for The Forbes Magazine Collection.
Sold from the Collection in 1985 and with The Fine Art Society, London, by 1996 (their exhibition Spring '96, no. 2).
Private Collection.
Henry Blackburn (ed.), The Academy Notes 1892, London, 1892, p. 12.
Times, 30 April 1892, p. 14.
Athenaeum, no. 3366, 30 April 1892, p. 570.
Academy, no. 41, 7 May 1892, p. 450.
Art Journal, 1892, pp. 188-190.
Magazine of Art, 1892, p. 221, a study of the picture illustrated p. 218.
Ernest Rhys, Sir Frederic Leighton, Bart, PRA: An Illustrated Chronicle, London, 1895, p. 72, illustrated facing p. 60.
Ernest Rhys, Frederic, Lord Leighton: An Illustrated Record of his Life and Work, London, 1898, pp. 38, 90, illustrated facing p. 40.
Alice Corkran, Frederick Leighton, London, 1904, p. 197.
Edgcumbe Staley, Lord Leighton of Stretton, PRA, London, 1906, pp. 148, 247.
Mrs Russell Barrington, The Life, Letters and Work of Frederic Leighton, London, 1906, vol. 2, pp. 260, 391, illustrated facing p. 287.
Leonée and Richard Ormond, Lord Leighton, Yale, 1975, p. 171, no. 366.
London, Royal Academy, 1892, no. 257.
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and other venues, The Royal Academy (1837-1901) Revisited: Victorian Paintings from the Forbes Magazine Collection, 1975-6, no. 37.
Manchester, City Art Gallery; Minneapolis, Institute of Arts; and New York, The Brooklyn Museum, Victorian High Renaissance, 1978-9, no. 60.

Brought to you by

Giles Forster
Giles Forster

Check the condition report or get in touch for additional information about this

Condition Report

If you wish to view the condition report of this lot, please sign in to your account.

Sign in
View condition report

Lot Essay

In Greek and Roman mythology, bacchantes and their sisters, the maenads, were devotees of the god of wine, Dionysus or Bacchus. His rites involved frenzied, drink-fuelled orgies, in which his ecstatic followers took part in a wild processional dance, the thiasos, made raucous music with pipes, cymbals and tambourines, and indulged every sexual licence. They entwined themselves with snakes and tore sacrificial animals limb from limb, eating the body-parts raw, before succumbing to a drunken stupor.

Leighton edits this heady scenario in accordance with late-Victorian sensibilities. True, his bacchante has vine leaves in her hair, shakes a tambourine, and wears a leopard-skin over her tunic in allusion to the leopards that traditionally drew Bacchus's chariot. But far from taking part in some debauched Dionysian revel, she trips sedately through the forest, while the fawn gambolling beside her is a playful companion, not some hapless victim destined to be rent apart.

Leighton was not only mindful of his audience's taste; he was also responding to his deepest instincts as an artist. For if any pagan deity was his tutelary genius, it was not Bacchus at all but his precise opposite, Apollo, the god of clarity, reason and civilised restraint. Further evidence of this is provided by an earlier picture with a strong Dionysian element, The Syracusan Bride of 1865-6 (private collection), in which young women are seen leading tigers, leopards and lions in a wedding procession. The elegance and harmony he brings to this concept anticipate the conception and mood of Bacchante.

Even more characteristic is his treatment of a subject the iconography of which traditionally embraces Bacchic revelry, namely the abandonment of Ariadne by Theseus on the island of Naxos, and her rescue by the arrival of the god and his bibulous companions. In Leighton's painting Ariadne abandoned by Theseus of 1868 (Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad) the heroine swoons gracefully on the seashore but no reveller, flagon, tambourine or leopard is in sight.

Leighton's instinctive distaste for the coarseness and vulgarity inherent in Bacchic subjects is thrown into stronger relief by certain productions of his fellow classicist Lawrence Alma-Tadema. With his roots in Dutch realism, Alma-Tadema is far more inclined to provide an unvarnished account of this aspect of the pagan world. In two works of the mid-1870s, After the Dance (private collection) and the unfinished Exhausted Maenides after the Dance (fig. 1), we see Bacchanalian revellers sleeping off their excesses; while in Autumn, a painting of 1877 (Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery), a single bacchante dances ecstatically in celebration of the year's vintage. Moreover, just as Leighton's strong sense of decorum emerges equally in quasi-Bacchic subjects, so does Alma-Tadema's anecdotal realism. The obvious example is the famous Roses of Heliogabalus of 1888 (private collection), a scene of unbridled debauchery that he relishes but Leighton would have shunned. The picture was sold in these Rooms in June 1993 for what was then the artist's record price.

Whatever the tendency of an artist's vision, Bacchic revelry was simply too prominent an element in perceptions of the ancient world to escape exploration by the Victorian classicists. True, it seemed to make no appeal to Leighton's close follower E.J. Poynter, while Albert Moore, for whom classical references seldom did more than veil formal experiments, hardly qualifies in this context. But there are a number of Dionysian subjects by Leighton's older friend, mentor and neighbour, G.F. Watts. In two works of 1875, Ariadne on Naxos (Guildhall Art Gallery, London) and A Bacchante (Watts Gallery, Compton), he adopts his own unique approach. Although he introduces appropriate stage props - the leopards in Ariadne on Naxos that Leighton had eschewed in his treatment of this subject; swarthy attendants, vine leaves and a hint of a leopard-skin in A Bacchante - his real purpose is to celebrate his devotion to the Elgin Marbles and the Pheidian ideal of female beauty. Nor did the interest in Bacchic themes die out with this generation. In recent years Christie's has handled examples by two younger academic artists: Alma-Tadema's pupil the Hon. John Collier (7 November 1997, lot 79) and Leighton's follower Henrietta Rae (Forbes Collection sale, 20 February 2003, lot 286).

Leighton's own Bacchante is thirteen years later than another major painting by him in this sale, Amarilla (lot 22). It appeared at the Royal Academy in 1892, only four years before his death at the age of sixty-six. He was still at the height of his career, embodying the Victorian art establishment and wielding more authority as President of the RA than any incumbent since Reynolds. But his art was entering its final phase, that late period in a creative life when an artist often gives the impression of working essentially for himself and his productions have a withdrawn, abstract quality that can be deeply moving. Many betray this tendency, not only in painting but sculpture, literature and music; and Leighton was not alone among his contemporaries. Burne-Jones, his junior by three years, is another example.

Leighton exhibited five pictures at the RA in 1892, and Bacchante is now the only one that is not in a museum. Two were imposing works consciously designed to showcase his powers of conception and formidable technical skills. And the Sea gave up the Dead which were in It (Tate Britain) was an ambitious essay in Michelangelesque terribilità illustrating a passage from Revelation in which the dead are described as rising from the sea at the Last Judgement. The composition dated from a decade earlier, when Leighton had been commissioned to decorate one of the spandrels in the dome of St Paul's Cathedral, London. The scheme had fallen through, but Leighton believed the design to be one of his best and offered to paint it for Sir Henry Tate, the sugar magnate who was making plans for the national gallery of British art that still bears his name. It was, he told Tate, 'the work which I should like to be remembered by' in this institution. Tate accepted his proposal, which was sweetened by an offer to reduce the picture's price by the amount Leighton had already received from the Dean and Chapter of St Paul's.

Leighton's second major exhibit at the RA of 1892 was The Garden of the Hesperides (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight). Like And the Sea, it was a roundel (thought not quite so large), but in all other respects it could hardly have been more different. If the mood of And the Sea was grim and apocalyptic, The Garden of the Hesperides conjures a vision of a lotus-eating, dolce far niente existence in some sun-kissed island paradise. Within the demanding roundel format, the compositions are also quite dissimilar, as are the colour schemes. The livid and sulphurous tones so appropriate to the theme of And the Sea give way in the Hesperides to a sprightly harmony of oranges, yellows, whites and dark blues and greens that is perfectly tailored to an image of languorous hedonism.

The other three pictures submitted in 1892 were all smaller and less self-consciously 'important'. One, Clytie (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, on loan to Leighton House), is an unusual work in which the figurative element is so reduced compositionally that the picture becomes essentially a large landscape, a concept unique in Leighton's oeuvre. Its companions were each three-quarter-length studies of single female figures: At the Fountain (Milwaukee Art Center, USA) and Bacchante.

The Garden of the Hesperides and Bacchante were both hung in Gallery III, the great central space at Burlington House. Here, too, were G.F. Watts's She shall be called Woman (Tate Britain), part of his Eve trilogy; one of Millais' bleakest late landscapes, 'Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind' (Auckland Art Gallery); and one of his most winning studies of children, 'The Little Speedwell's Darling Blue' (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight). There was also a characteristic Poynter, When the World was Young (with Leger Galleries, London, 1971), Briton Riviere's Dead Hector (Manchester City Art Gallery), and examples of Alma-Tadema, Thomas Sidney Cooper, Luke Fildes, W.Q. Orchardson, B.W. Leader, Marcus Stone, Thomas Faed, Hubert von Herkomer, W.F Yeames, and others. In short, it would have been hard to find a collection of works more representative of the late-Victorian Royal Academy.

Inevitably, when the critics discussed Leighton's contributions they focused their attention on And the Sea and the Hesperides. Not that their comments were always favourable. Fashion was changing and literary figure subjects, even when the exponent was the President, were being subjected to far harsher criticism than they would have been a decade or two earlier. As for the three smaller works, they tended to be overlooked, although Bacchante was not without its admirers. F.G. Stephens, the veteran art critic on the Athenaeum, described the figure as 'dancing with great spirit, while a kid capers before her'. He also liked the picture's 'rich colour' and 'deep tones', observing that these contrasted with the paler tints of At the Fountain. Meanwhile M.H. Spielmann, writing in the Magazine of Art, found the work 'distinguished by grace and refinement'. Like Stephens, he also noted the disparity between the 'tender...colour treatment' of At the Fountain and the more 'robust' chromatic harmony for which the painter had opted in Bacchante.

In addition to discussing the picture, Spielmann reproduced a characteristic study for it in black and white chalk on coloured paper. It had probably been lent for the purpose by Leighton himself, who, as usual, had taken great care with the picture's preparation. Several of these chalk studies exist, including two in the collection of Leighton House, together with a sketch in oil on canvas. These oil sketches, made to establish the colour scheme and general composition, were again typical of Leighton's working methods, and many survive at Leighton House.

A feature of Bacchante that several critics mentioned, and that we see Leighton addressing in the related studies, is the model's daringly foreshortened left arm, raised as if encouraging the frolicsome fawn to jump. There was some dispute as to whether he had pulled off this feat of representation, but the critics were right to draw attention to it as it was almost certainly an aspect of the work that was important to the artist himself. Time and again in his contributions to the RA exhibitions we sense Leighton consciously setting an example to less experienced artists, particularly the students at the RA Schools, in whose artistic education he took the keenest interest. Inevitably these lessons focussed on academic draughtsmanship, the bedrock of his whole aesthetic approach; and the foreshortened arm in Bacchante is a classic case in point.

Leighton's sense of responsibility to younger artists went hand in hand with an acute awareness of working in a tradition. This is conveyed vividly by the presidential addresses he gave every two years to the RA students, beginning in 1879. In the very first, for instance, having spoken of his 'deep and sympathetic interest' in his charges' 'artistic growth and welfare', he indicates to them 'the sure paths of tradition' and tries to make them conscious of being 'heirs to a boundless inheritance of artistic treasure'.

Leighton himself was steeped in the art of the past. It was he who instituted the winter exhibitions of old masters at the RA, the first taking place in 1870, and his own art reflected a powerful art-historical sense at every turn. Indeed the link had been established at the outset in his first major picture, Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna is carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence (Royal Collection), a subject taken from Vasari which allowed him to declare his profound sympathy with the art of the early Italian Renaissance. Among many later examples, one has already been encountered in the description of And the Sea gave up the Dead as 'Michelangelesque'. This is no idle cliché. The late Stephen Jones convincingly demonstrated that there is a close connection between the conception of Leighton's picture and the National Gallery's acquisition of Michelangelo's Entombment in 1868. Some at the time questioned the picture's attribution, but for Leighton there was 'not the slightest doubt' of its authenticity, and subsequent scholars have been inclined to agree with him.

Bacchante also shows Leighton working in certain traditions. Bacchantes and maenads had been a favourite motif for sculptural reliefs in the Graeco-Roman period. With their swirling drapery, they were a gift to artists, and appeared from the early fifth century BC on drinking cups, urns, cisterns and even, perhaps less appropriately, sarcophagi. That Leighton was well aware of these productions is suggested by two parallels. A photograph of an example, taken from a marble rhyton in the Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome, belonged to Alma-Tadema and seems to have had some influence on the conception of his painting Autumn, mentioned above. And if contemporary commentators are to be believed, Leighton himself borrowed a motif from a Graeco-Roman relief for his painting The Garden of the Hesperides, exhibited with Bacchante in 1892.

Bacchic indulgence made less appeal to the medieval imagination, but with the classical revival it once again came into its own as a subject for painters, inspiring major works by Titian, Annibale Carracci, Rubens, Van Dyck and their successors. Leighton, so art-historically aware and so well travelled, must have seen numerous examples.

The one that leaps to mind, of course, is Titian's famous Bacchus and Ariadne (fig. 2) in London's National Gallery, an institution he knew well and helped to develop, offering advice on acquisitions. The picture had been in the collection since 1826, so it would have been a very old friend and one he almost certainly revered. He had copied a painting by Titian as a student, and the artist was idolised by his great friend G.F. Watts. He would also have been familiar with another Bacchic subject in Trafalgar Square, The Drunken Silenus from the studio of Rubens. This was purchased in 1871, probably with Leighton's approval since he was to urge the acquisition of two works by Rubens when the Blenheim Palace pictures were dispersed in the 1880s. Meanwhile closer to home in the Royal Academy was a major later painting in the Titian/Rubens tradition: William Etty's Sleeping Nymph and Satyrs. The artist had presented it as his diploma work in 1828.

None of these, however, do more than contribute to the general context of our picture. Leighton would have admired them intellectually, but in one way or another all represent the full-blooded, rumbustious Bacchanalian imagery to which Bacchante offers a reproach. If we want more precise parallels, we should look to a different strand in the tradition, namely those late-eighteenth-century English theatrical portraits in which the artist's obligation to flatter his sitter found expression in Romantic notions of Bacchic revelry. Romney's many likenesses of his muse, Emma Hamilton, as a bacchante are the obvious instance, but there are others only slightly more oblique in concept. The Italian dancer Giovanna Baccelli as painted by Gainsborough (Tate Britain) is a bacchante in all but name. So is the actress Mrs Jordan when imagined by Hoppner as the Comic Muse, archly evading the louche advances of a satyr (Royal Collection). It is in pictures like these, winning and playful, drawing on earlier imagery but rejecting its more disturbing implications, that Bacchante finds its most meaningful antecedents.

More from Victorian & British Impressionist Art

View All
View All