Frederic Septimus Leighton (1799-1890) was the seventh child of James Leighton, a successful doctor. The Leightons were a Yorkshire family, but this branch had moved to London in the mid-eighteenth century. James went to Russia in the early 1880s and was highly successful, attending the Czarina and becoming physician in chief to the Russian navy. The private income that was to enable his grandson, the artist, to live in style and lend a helping hand to less fortunate confrères was based on the fortune that James had made in roubles.
The family was Roman Catholic, and Frederic Septimus received his formal education at Stonyhurst. He then joined his father in St Petersburg, where he worked briefly as a clerk in a merchant's office before entering the university to study medicine. After taking the highest honours, he pursued his studies for two years at the university of Edinburgh before going to Paris for further instruction and to gain practical experience in the city's hospitals.
The young doctor returned to England early in 1826, and on 24 June he married Augusta Susan Nash, the daughter of a recently deceased glass merchant from Edmonton, Middlesex. The marriage brought Scottish and German, possibly German Jewish, blood into the family, as well as considerable property. Soon after their marriage the couple set out for Russia, where their first two children were born, but when James Leighton returned to England in 1829, they decided to accompany him and settled in Scarborough. There a third child, the future artist, was born on 3 December 1830.
In 1833 the family moved to London. Dr Leighton acquired a practice, and in 1838 was appointed lecturer in forensic medicine at the recently founded Middlesex Hospital. But the independent means he acquired on the death of his father in 1843 effectively put an end to his medical career, enabling him to travel extensively for the sake of Mrs Leighton's health, their children's education (which the doctor undertook himself) and his own intellectual interests.
Dr Leighton was initially reluctant to see his son become a painter. However, not only did he eventually give way but, by taking his family abroad, he profoundly influenced the youth's development, enabling him to gain a cosmopolitan training and acquire the international perspective that was to characterise his entire career. As early as 1839 the Leightons visited Paris. Two years later they set out on a leisurely tour through Germany, Switzerland and Italy, ending up in Dresden. Having spent the winter of 1842 in England, they then resumed their continental wanderings, spending periods in Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt and Florence before finally making Frankfurt their headquarters in 1846. During the next two years young Frederic studied at the Städelsches Kunstinstitut and made the Nazarene contacts which so influenced his early style. The revolution of 1848 forced the family to take refuge first in Brussels and then in Paris, but in 1850 they returned to Frankfurt and the artist resumed his studies. Frankfurt remained the Leightons' home until 1852, when the doctor, his wife and daughters returned to England and settled in Bath while his son went on to Rome, a move which finally established his independence.
In their monograph on Leighton, the Ormonds suggest a date of the early 1850s for the present portrait. This would imply that the artist was in his early twenties, that the sitter was aged about fifty-two, and that sittings took place during the last year or two of the family's stay in Frankfurt, all of which seems plausible. The portrait is a subtle piece of characterisation, capturing Dr Leighton's cold, shy and aloof personality which dominated his family and re-emerged to some extent in his son. In fact the sitter looks every inch the martinet who was to give the artist such a thorough intellectual grounding, ensuring that he spoke so many European languages and had such a strong sense of dedication and duty. Dr Leighton followed his son's career eagerly, and was his guest at the first Royal Academy banquet at which he appeared as President (1879). He lived to be ninety-one, predeceasing the artist by only six years in 1890.