Nothing so clearly demonstrates the shift in Leighton’s style from German-trained history painter to French-inspired aesthete than the paintings of La Nanna executed in Rome during the winter of 1858-59, of which three were exhibited at the Royal Academy in London the following spring. Since the Academy triumph of Cimabue’s Madonna Carried in Triumph Through the Streets of Florence (Royal Collections Trust, on loan to the National Gallery, London), which had, at a stroke, established the young artist’s reputation in 1855, Leighton’s career had faltered. Subsequent Academy contributions had been less well received, or even panned, and Leighton had taken himself off to Paris to regroup and retrain. The influence of Ary Scheffer, and of other artists of the French school, led the artist to refine his style, and to value imagination, beauty, poetry and decoration in his work, as much as drama and narrative. The pictures of La Nanna were the first fruits of that newly discovered aesthetic and they were to set the scene for much that was to follow.
Working in Rome during the winter of 1858-9, Leighton encountered a Roman model, Anna Risi, known as La Nanna. In February, he told his mother that he was ‘about to despatch to the Royal Academy some studies from a very handsome model, “La Nanna”. I have shown them to a good many people, artists and “Philistines”, and they seem to be universally admired. Let us hope they will be well hung in the Exhibition’ (Barrington, II, p. 39). Allen Staley has pointed out that Corot was painting women in Italian costume and that ‘Leighton knew and admired Corot ... So in undertaking this type of study in 1858, in the immediate aftermath of his Parisian stay, Leighton may have been inspired in part by Corot’s current activity, going one better by travelling to Rome to paint an Italian model’ (A. Staley, p. 229). Anna Risi, the wife of a cobbler, was tall, imposing and exceptionally beautiful. The French painter, Léon Bonnat, had painted her and a marble bust by the French sculptor, Jean-Baptiste Clésinger, now missing, was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1859. Another marble bust, by Charles Cordier (fig. 1, High Museum, Atlanta), was recently identified as La Nanna by the present authors. Nanna later became the model and lover of the German painter, Anselm Feuerbach, who met her soon after Leighton had left Rome, and painted numerous pictures of her (fig. 2, 1860, Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe).
While working on his studies of Nanna, Leighton was visited in his studio by the seventeen-year old Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, who became a friend and admirer of the artist. The Prince and his companions told Leighton that ‘they liked my studio better than any they had seen in Rome’ (Barrington, II, p. 40). The Prince declared that he had much admired ‘three beautiful portraits of a Roman woman each representing the same person in a different attitude’ (Stephen Jones et al, 1996, p. 112) and purchased one of the paintings which remains in the Royal Collection (fig. 3). The work had already been promised to George de Montbrison, but he loyally stood down, and Leighton, breaking his usual rules, made Montbrison a copy, now in the collection at Leighton House (fig. 4).
There are four further studies of Nanna. The largest and most important is the painting now in the Philadelphia Art Museum, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1859 as A Roman Lady (La Nanna) (no. 281, fig. 5). The picture of Pavonia, catalogued here, first appeared on the art market in 1982, and it became clear from reviews that this was the picture, not either of those in the Royal Collection or at Leighton House, as previously thought, that had been exhibited as no. 32 at the Royal Academy of 1859. A fifth study, entitled Sunny Hours, was also exhibited at the Royal Academy (no. 118), and it was purchased by Lady Hoare (sold Sotheby’s, 23 May 2013, lot 16). A small sixth study of the head of Nanna is at Bowood House, Wiltshire.
Of the studies, the Philadelphia picture shows Nanna three-quarter length, looking straight at the spectator and dressed in traditional folk costume. In the Royal Collection and Leighton House paintings she is in profile, against a background of peacock feathers. The peacock feathers are repeated, clearly as a large fan, in the present painting, Pavonia, with Nanna’s face turned to the side, and looking past the viewer. The critic in the Atheneum wrote of her ‘backward yet proud look ...worthy of a Lucrezia Borgia’ (7 May 1859, p. 618). Elsewhere he compared her to another power-hungry woman from the sixteenth-century, Vittoria Corombona, the heroine of John Webster’s play, The White Divel. Among recent critics, Richard Dorment finds that the images of La Nanna have ‘an air of deliberate, disturbing coldness’ (Dorment, p. 3), and Christopher Newall describes how ‘the model turns towards the spectator, not in a spontaneous or animated way, but reluctantly, to reveal the beauty of her face and neck to the artist’ (Newall, p. 28). As Paul Barlow points out, this is less a portrait than a ‘genre’ image in which a ‘single figure’ is portrayed (Barlow, p. 206). The title of the painting is taken from the Italian word for a female peacock, although, ironically, the feathers in the fan must come from a male. All the paintings show the sitter in a white blouse and tight bodice, wearing pearls, either in her hair or round her neck.
On the whole, the critics liked Pavonia. The Athenaeum critic felt that the painter had ‘admirably caught the Italian complexion in all its tints, down even to the languid sepia tint under the eyes ...Mr Leighton, after a temporary eclipse, again struggles to light. His heads of Italian women this year are worthy of a young old master, -- so rapt, anything more feeling, commanding or coldly beautiful we have not seen for many a day.... This is real painting’. The critic of the Art Journal found the head ‘full of character’ and thought the painting ‘incomparably superior’ to Leighton’s Samson and Delilah, exhibited at the Royal Society of British Artists in the same year.
There is no doubt that Leighton’s paintings of Nanna caused a stir and not just among the critics. The sensuous and exotic character of the model and the decorative splendour and exotic character of design and accessories caught the attention of Leighton’s fellow artists. According to Christopher Newall, soon ‘after seeing Leighton’s La Nanna series’ Dante Gabriel Rossetti ‘commenced the luxuriant and deliberately erotic half-length paintings of young women, such as Bocca Bociata (fig. 6), which set the pattern for his later career’ (Newall, p. 29). Allen Staley points out the debt that Frederick Sandys owed to the Leighton pictures of Nanna Risi in the Academy exhibition for his painting of Vivien (fig. 7, Manchester City Art Galleries) of 1863, where ‘the background of peacock feathers, which frame the subjects head’, allows ‘no sense of space behind her’ (A. Staley, p. 77.) In an Academy picture of 1863, Odalisque (Private Collection), Leighton once again employed the peacock fan as a background feature. Leighton’s use of the motif anticipates its popularity with the aesthetic movement of the 1870s, when peacock feathers and sunflowers became all the rage, prominent in Edward Poynter’s decorations to the Grill Room of the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum) and in James Whistler’s famous Peacock Room (Freer Gallery, Washington D.C.).
We are grateful to Richard Ormond, C.B.E. and Professor Leonée Ormond for their help in preparing this catalogue entry.