As the gap between the academic and the avant-garde widened in the late nineteenth century, Frederic Leighton (1830–1896) and James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) seemed to represent distant poles. Following traditional methods, Leighton produced meticulously painted canvases with a high degree of finish. By contrast, Whistler embraced a distinctly modern manner, employing free brushwork and deliberately flattened forms. While Leighton was an exceptionally private man whose association with the increasingly outmoded Royal Academy largely determined his public persona, Whistler was vocal, openly combative, and well known for his eccentricities and anti-establishment sentiments. In spite of their disparate reputations and manners of painting, however, these contemporaries shared deeply rooted and radical artistic principles as major proponents of 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. In his pursuit of pure form, Leighton found his ideal means in the timeless and universal motifs of the classical world. Whistler sought similar ends but favored the imagery of modern life.
Freed from any narrative context or historical moment, the classically draped figure in Leighton’s Flaming June is a vehicle for brilliant color and a dynamic play of curves and angles while nevertheless remaining a corporeal and sensual presence. In Whistler’s portraits, subject and design similarly form an indivisible and evocative whole. Balancing his artistic principles and the demands of his patrons, he integrated his fashionable sitters within simplified settings, arranging them in service of his overall design while still capturing particularities of character. In Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs. Frances Leyland, Whistler emphatically flattens both subject and setting. Mrs. Leyland, draped in a gossamer gown, her back to the viewer, becomes a field of color and line, as the title indicates, yet her beauty, pose, and expression evoke a palpable mood. In Harmony in Pink and Grey: Portrait of Lady Meux, Whistler accentuates the serpentine line of his subject’s body with a tight-fitting waistcoat and a train that cascades to the ground in rhythmic folds. As in Flaming June, the sensory appeal of color and form reinforces the sensuality of the female figure, another type of femme fatale.
In the 1860s, Leighton and Whistler might have expected to follow similar artistic paths. Like Leighton, Whistler — an American — established himself in London in 1859. Both emerged as part of a generation of avant-garde artists who struggled to gain the acceptance of the Royal Academy. While Leighton ultimately succeeded, Whistler abandoned the pursuit. In 1878, when Leighton was elected Academy president and Whistler brought his lawsuit against the critic John Ruskin (widely understood as a defining clash between Aestheticism and the art establishment), their careers and artistic identities diverged markedly. Nevertheless, the two continued to exhibit overlapping artistic aims and, in their shared search for formal beauty, produced defiantly modern masterpieces.
James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs. Frances Leyland, 1871-74. Oil on canvas. The Frick Collection