Leighton, Whistler, and Aestheticism

painting, Flaming June, of woman in repose in lush and vivid orange sheer garment


This post is adapted from an article in the Spring/Summer 2015 issue of the Members’ Magazine.

In 1877, James McNeill Whistler sued John Ruskin for libel. Earlier that year, the critic had accused the artist of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face” in response to one of his pictures then on view at London’s newly established Grosvenor Gallery. The case—victorious in name but financially devastating for the painter—is widely regarded as a clash between the Victorian art establishment and the avant-garde movement known as Aestheticism. Underpinned by the concept of “art for art’s sake”—the belief in the independent value of art apart from any didactic, moral, or political purpose—Aestheticism called for the prioritization of formal qualities of color and line over subject matter. During the trial, in November 1878, Whistler explained that in his work the representation of, or resemblance to, a specific subject was mere pretense, and that his sole aim was “to bring about a certain harmony of color.” Among Whistler’s supporters was fellow artist Frederic Leighton, who agreed to speak in Whistler’s defense in court. What he might have said is not known, for that same month he was elected president of the Royal Academy and had to appear at Windsor Castle to be knighted on the day of the trial. Leighton’s Academy presidency and Whistler’s very public lawsuit sealed their disparate reputations, one as the leader of a time-honored but increasingly outmoded institution, the other as an anti-establishment radical. Nonetheless, as Elizabeth Prettejohn discusses in her 2007 book, Art for Art’s Sake: Aestheticism in Victorian Painting, the two shared deeply rooted principles about art, which they explored in distinct but overlapping ways throughout their careers.  The summer exhibition at the Frick, which presents Leighton’s Flaming June, on loan from the Museo de Arte de Ponce, alongside the Frick’s four full-length portraits by Whistler, offers the opportunity to reconsider the relationship of their distinctly modern masterpieces.

In the 1860s, Whistler and Leighton found themselves on strikingly similar artistic paths. Nearly exact contemporaries, both men had unusually cosmopolitan upbringings: Leighton, British by birth, grew up and trained on the Continent, primarily in Germany and Italy, while Whistler, an American, grew up in Massachusetts but spent parts of his youth in Russia and England. Each worked in Paris in the 1850s and settled in London in 1859, emerging as part of a generation of avant-garde artists credited with the development of Aestheticism. In 1867, a critic listed Leighton and Whistler, along with seven others, as “those contemporary artists whose aim, to judge by their works, seems to be pre-eminently beauty.” The images they produced in those early years, often featuring classically draped women, indeed explore beauty for its own sake—the beauty of the female form and of subtle harmonies of color, dual interests that would remain central to the work of both artists, even as they began to treat different motifs.

Whistler eventually turned away from the classical in favor of the imagery of modern life, becoming a painter predominantly of fashionable portraits and evocative urban and marine views. As he would express in his “Ten O’Clock” lecture of 1885, art is “selfishly occupied with her own perfection only—having no desire to teach—seeking and finding the beautiful in all conditions, and in all times.” Leighton, on the other hand, remained committed to the timeless and the classical, remarking in 1873 that in this “class of subjects” he had found an ideal means for his “growing love for form” and pursuit of “pure artistic qualities.”

two slumbering women in voluminous draperies recline on a marble banquette.This pursuit is evident in Leighton’s Summer Moon of 1872, known through a reproduction from the 1880s. In this work, two slumbering women in voluminous draperies recline on a marble banquette. Free of any narrative context or specificity of time and place, their undulating bodies are above all vehicles for the evocation of mood and for an overall rhythmic design in which the strong curves of their arms echo those of the aperture behind them. Their smooth, rounded forms seem almost an extension of the spare setting, like sculpted figures on a tomb.

woman standing with back turned, dressed in white dress adorned with flowers, Whistler reveals similar aims in his Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs. Frances Leyland, but whereas Leighton renders his figures as three-dimensional, sculptural forms, Whistler emphatically flattens both subject and setting. Mrs. Leyland—in her gossamer gown, her back to the viewer—appears weightless, effectively disembodied, made of paint. Integrated into the setting, she becomes, like the rest of the portrait, a field of color and line. Of course, she was not an anonymous figure but the wife of an important patron and a great beauty with whom the artist might have been in love. Balancing the demands of portraiture and his artistic principles, Whistler creates an Aesthetic masterpiece in which subject and design form an indivisible, evocative whole.

In 1868, Leighton became a full member of the Royal Academy, while Whistler, by the early 1870s, had ceased submitting work to the institution’s annual exhibitions. This was a period of increasingly emphatic division between the academic and the avant-garde in Europe. In Paris, the Salon des Refusés of 1863 and the Impressionist exhibitions of the 1870s and 1880s constituted a major challenge to the preeminence of the official Salon sponsored by the Académie royale and gave definition, and eventually a name, to the Parisian avant-garde. Similarly, in London, in 1877, the Grosvenor Gallery was founded explicitly as an alternative to the Academy, marking a defining moment for Aestheticism. Both Whistler and Leighton showed work at its inaugural exhibition, before their careers diverged so markedly the following year.

Leighton embraced his presidency, serving for seventeen years, until his death, and, as Elizabeth Prettejohn notes, choosing to promote Aestheticism within the establishment. In an address to the Academy in 1881, he spoke of the “range of emotions...to which Art and Art alone amongst human forms of expression has a key” and “the chords which it is her appointed duty to strike.” Leighton, like Whistler, believed that painting must not verbalize ideas but embrace its own wordless, even subject-less, form of expression. Even when Leighton drew upon literary sources, his figures are often isolated from their contexts or presented at moments when the narrative action has stopped and the figures themselves are static—even sleeping. In his “Ten O’Clock” lecture, Whistler similarly alluded to acoustic music, referencing the artist’s “notes” and “chords,” to emphasize the painting process as one not of idealization but abstraction—the manipulation of nature into a harmonious design. Through the lecture, Whistler became Aestheticism’s most vocal proponent.

In 1886, Whistler wrote to Leighton with a complaint about his supposed exclusion from the party held in celebration of that summer’s Royal Academy exhibition. In accordance with tradition, he ought to have received an invitation as the newly elected president of the Society of British Artists, an organization that had much to gain from the American artist’s notoriety. Whistler thus assumed that he had been deliberately slighted by the Academy. To his colorful letter, Leighton replied in a bemused and slightly exasperated tone that an invitation had indeed been sent and that no ill will was intended. He also added a significant postscript: alluding to Whistler’s “Ten O’Clock” lecture, in which the American artist had referred to himself as a preacher, Leighton wrote, “I don’t know whether you are aware that I am one of your flock.”

However, later in the year, when Whistler reminded Leighton of his comment and asked him to submit work to the exhibition of the Society of British Artists that fall, Leighton declined, replying that he was away until November and, in any case, “not of those who knock off things rapidly.” Following this refusal, Whistler’s antipathy toward Leighton seems to have grown. Around this time, the artist and critic Walter Sickert, a champion and former pupil of Whistler, praised Leighton’s Summer Moon and subsequently compared it to one of Whistler’s portraits. Whistler responded with a telegram accusing Sickert of a betrayal of biblical proportion. In later correspondence regarding his inclusion in the American versus British section of the lithography exhibition in Paris, Whistler explicitly wrote that he did not wish “to be placed in the hands of Leighton and those others in any matter.”

painting of woman standing in pink and gray dress with hatYet even in these later years of increasing discord between them, their work, as Sickert recognized, reveals shared interests. Whistler’s Harmony in Pink and Grey: Portrait of Lady Meux and Leighton’s Flaming June, for example, explore the dual impact of the beauty of the female body and the visual power of color. The two images—one a voluptuous woman who stares suggestively at the viewer, the other a sleeping beauty in the presence of a poisonous flower—allude to the archetype of the femme fatale. In both, the body is submitted to abstraction, becoming a dynamic play of angles and curves while remaining a palpable presence. In Flaming June, the model’s limbs are elongated and arranged to form a spiral within a perfectly square canvas, while the serpentine line of Lady Meux’s body is accentuated by her costume—a tight-fitting satin waistcoat and a train with a chiffon ruffle that cascades to the ground in rhythmic folds. The paintings make their sensory impact through this combination of pure form and the sensuality of the body.

To a large extent, Whistler and Leighton actively cultivated their divergent artistic identities. Whistler was outspoken in his antipathy to convention and inclined to broadcast his eccentricities. He was combative to the end, rehashing his case against Ruskin and articulating other complaints in his aptly titled book The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, published in 1890. Leighton, on the other hand, was an exceptionally private man, and his public persona was shaped almost entirely by his association with the Academy. His traditional painting technique and methods, which he emphasized in interviews, set him apart from many other late-nineteenth-century artists, who, like Whistler, preferred free brushwork, thin veils of paint, and often deliberately flattened forms. To later generations of modernists, Whistler’s and Leighton’s work thus seemed worlds apart. Yet both men—two of the most prominent figures in late-nineteenth-century England—contributed significantly to Aestheticism and thus to a new definition of art, one that arguably paved the way for twentieth-century abstraction.

Frederic Leighton (1830–1896), Flaming June, ca. 1895. Oil on canvas. Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico, The Luis A. Ferré Foundation, Inc.

Frederic Leighton (1830–1896), Summer Moon, 1872. Oil on canvas (location unknown), as reproduced in an 1884 photogravure by P & D Colnaghi & Co. Leighton House Museum, The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, London

James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs. Frances Leyland, 1871–74. Oil on canvas. The Frick Collection

James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), Harmony in Pink and Grey: Portrait of Lady Meux, 1881–82. Oil on canvas. The Frick Collection

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