Olga's Gallery

Frederick Leighton Biography

Frederick Leighton Portrait

Frederic Leighton was a British painter of the late 19th Century, and one of the pre-eminent artists of the Victorian period. Though the scion of a wealthy family, his considerable talent caused him to pursue the rather unfashionable calling of fine art. An incredibly prolific painter, he left behind hundreds of works and, defying critics, established new fashions in the art of the time. He eventually rose to the position of President of the Royal Academy of Art, which he used to promote an artistic renaissance in Great Britain.

Frederic Leighton was born on 3 December, 1830, in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, into the family of a wealthy doctor, Frederic Septimus Leighton. Leighton's family had longstanding connections to the Russian monarchy through his grandfather, who had been court physician to both Czar Alexander I and, briefly, Czar Nicholas I. Leighton's father thus inherited a great deal of wealth and subsequently retired, perhaps due to his wife's declining health, deciding to focus instead on his family.

Leighton's artistic gifts became evident as early as the age of five, when he took up a pencil and paper and began drawing various household objects and pets while bedridden from a severe illness. At the age of nine, under similar circumstances, when he sketched copies of two of his father's own paintings. These demonstrations of his talent convinced Leighton's parents of giving him a chance at an art education.

His first exposure to professional painting happened in 1839, when he visited the studio of artist George Lance while the family was staying in Paris. The visit had been unplanned, but it made a notable impression on young Leighton. The artist persuaded his parents to allow him to return to the studio several more times.

The following year, Leighton's family moved to Rome, where his father hired the draftsman Signor Francesco Meli to continue Leighton's instruction in art. It was from him that Leighton received his first serious lessons in draftsmanship. In his spare time, the budding artist would tour art galleries, churches and museums throughout the city, becoming acquainted with the history of art and stoking the fires of his newly-discovered passion. This would continue for the next two years, during which the family traveled throughout Italy, visiting the country's other art centers of Florence, Venice, Bologna, and Milan.

By the summer of 1842, the family had returned, by way of Germany, to England, where Leighton briefly attended University College School in London. The diverse, and intensive, education Leighton had acquired on the continent, thanks to the perseverance of his father, soon gained him recognition amongst his teachers and peers. By this time he was already fluent in French and Italian. To top off his mastery of languages with a grounding in German, the family moved to Berlin that winter.

While in the Prussian capital, Leighton took art classes at the Royal Academy. This indirectly led to his work being praised by one of the Academy's professors, Dählinger, when he happened to see some of the boy's work around the family's house during a visit. The professor remarked that Leighton had the makings of a distinguished artist, which was perhaps what finally convinced his father to make art lessons a more serious part of Leighton's education.

In 1844, the family return to Italy, where they settled for a time in Florence. Young Leighton was overjoyed to be back, and wasted no time re-visiting the art galleries, this time with a more experienced eye. Meanwhile, his father, still unconvinced about the wisdom of art as a profession, sought the opinion of his friend, an American sculptor by the name of Hiram Powers, who had somewhat of a reputation for discouraging people from pursuing careers in art. Powers readily agreed to have a look at the boy's work, but, after several days of deliberation, told Dr. Leighton that he could not, in good conscience, oppose his son's endeavors due to his outstanding talent. This was a turning point for young Leighton, for now he had his father's blessing to pursue art in earnest, on the one condition that his general education was not sidelined.

Spring of 1845 saw Leighton attending the Academia delle Belle Arti in Florence, studying under Bezzuoli and Servolini. Both were considered among the best Italian artists of the time, often compared to Michelangelo and Raphael by their students. Whether or not Leighton shared such sentiments is unclear, but he learned a great deal under their guidance. Dr. Leighton, too, contributed to his son's art studies. The father would have his boy copy existing prints of the human body, then tear the drawings up and make him redraw the pictures anew from memory, in this way making sure that Leighton became as familiar with the bones, muscles and organs of the human body as any learned doctor. These exercises instilled in Leighton a remarkable ability to draw from memory.

At the end of 1846 the family moved to Frankfurt, where Leighton continued his studies at the Städel Institute. The institute possessed a robust art gallery, having inherited its founder's extensive collection, and the young artist found plenty of material for study.

The following year was spent in Brussels. At this point Leighton was seventeen and an adult in his father's eyes, so he was allowed to conclude his general studies and devote all of his time to artistic pursuits. However, although he was introduced to multiple well-known teachers, he did not become attached to any one studio, instead choosing to remain independent. Around this period, in 1848, he produced his first major project, the oil painting Cimabue and Giotto.

The period 1849-1850 saw yet more traveling on Leighton's part as the family visited first Paris, then Athens. However, since he was now pursuing an artistic career in earnest, Leighton was drawn back to Frankfurt and the Städel Institute, having made good friends with the professors and finding the environment much to his liking. Leighton's more notable works from this time include The Duel Between Romeo and Tybalt (1850-51) and The Death of Brunelleschi (1850-51), as well as a satirical fresco, painted on the wall of a local abandoned castle and featuring likenesses of some of the institute's better known professors. The last of these was reportedly one of Leighton's personal favorites, but unfortunately hasn't survived.

In 1852, Leighton traveled back to Rome, stopping for a short time in Venice, where he drew one of his more famous sketches, Byzantine Well-head. Leighton's early biographers claimed that working on the detailed drawing under the bright Venetian sun gave Leighton eyesight problems which would hound him later in life. However, with what modern science knows about vision, this is very unlikely to have been the case.

Upon reaching the Eternal City, he set up a studio on the Via della Purificazione to work on Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna (1855), a painting that would later prove to be his breakthrough to fame. Since Leighton had a generous allowance from his parents and did not have to rely on his art for upkeep, he was free to draw as he pleased, and had few actual patrons at this time. However, being a highly sociable person from an aristocratic background, and with people being his preferred subject, he produced several portraits and paintings of his friends, acquaintances, and strangers. One of his other known paintings from this Roman period is The Persian Peddler (c. 1852).

In 1855 the artist attended an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, where he finally unveiled Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna to the public. The painting was an immense success and garnered unprecedented praise and attention, even catching the eye of Queen Victoria, who soon purchased it for the royal collection. This recognition from the country's regent silenced even the harshest critics whilst propelling Leighton to widespread recognition in his home country, from where his fame soon spread to the continent.

Leighton was cautious not to let success go to his head, and left England after only a brief stay. The payment he had received for his celebrated painting was largely spent on supporting struggling young artists, both at home and abroad, as part of a bid to revitalize the fine arts in England, which he considered to be in an extremely poor state compared to the rest of Europe. Leighton moved to Paris, where he set up a studio on the Rue Pigalle to continue his own work. His fame preceded him, and he was soon enjoying the company and friendship of many talented French artists who came to visit and observe his work. He participated in the 1855 World Fair (Exposition Universelle) with the painting Reconciliation of Montagues and Capulets (1855), and then later again displayed at the Royal Academy in England with The Triumph of Music (1856).

The next few years were spent mostly in and around Paris as Leighton found some of his first real patrons. Some of his commissioned work from this time includes Salome (1857), The Mermaid (1858) and, perhaps most famously, The Feigned Death of Juliet (The Discovery of Juliet Apparently Lifeless, 1858), which won Leighton a gold medal at the Paris Exhibition of Painting. Of note are also A Reminiscence of Algiers (1858) and Nymph and Cupid (1858), painted during the artist's excursion to Algiers, both of which were exhibited at the Royal Society of British Artists in 1858.

In the winter of 1858-59 Leighton moved back to Rome, though he continued sending his works home to the Royal Academy, namely A Roman Lady–La Nanna (1859), Pavonia (1859), Sunny Hours (1859) and Samson and Delilah (1859). The last of these was turned down by the Royal Academy, much to Leighton's distress, so he instead submitted it to the Royal Society for exhibition.

A year later, he returned to London, wishing to establish better contacts with his fellow British artists, and settled at No. 2 Orme Square, Bayswater, which served as both his residence and his studio. At this time the artist painted many portraits, which weren't his favorite subject, but were in very high demand. These include Portrait of May Sartoris (c. 1860) and Portrait of Mrs. Sutherland-Orr (1860). The latter of these was among the works he submitted to the Royal Academy in 1861, together with Capri–Sunset (1860). For the latter, he drew scathing criticism, insisting that such art was more appropriate for murals and belonged in an architectural exhibition.

This reception caused Leighton to redouble his efforts and the following year saw a whole seven of his paintings on display at the Royal Academy, including The Star of Bethlehem (1862), The Sisters (1862), Michael Angelo nursing his dying Servant (1862), and The Odalisque (1862), which garnered much attention and many requests for copies. When the critics persisted in tearing into his work, Leighton followed up with a further four paintings submitted the following year: Ahab and Jezebel (1863), Girl with a Basket of Fruit (aka Eucharis, 1863), Girl feeding Peacocks (1863), and An Italian Crossbowman (1863).

In 1864, Leighton was elected Associate of the Royal Academy. That this was so long in coming is somewhat peculiar given his popularity, and perhaps had something to do with the antagonism of the critics. However, his contribution of Dante in Exile, sometimes called his second great masterpiece, as well as Orpheus and Eurydice, and Golden Hours to the Academy that year finally secured him the honor.

With this and further exhibitions at the Royal Academy, Leighton's fame only grew, as did his many circles of friends, acquaintances and clientele, until he found his residence too small to properly practice his art and entertain his numerous guests. No house was to his liking, however, so in 1865 he purchased a plot of land on Holland Park Road, Kensington, where he intended to build his new home. Being old friends with the President of the Royal Institute of British Architects, it wasn't long before plans were drawn up and construction was underway. Leighton took great interest in the process, and even keener interest in the subject of architecture. He studied it extensively enough to be able to discuss the plans with the insight of an expert, poring over every tiny detail to make sure it turned out exactly to his liking. Later in life, his architectural drawings would even earn him a gold medal from the Royal Institute.

The following year was a busy one for Leighton. He visited Spain and helped to redecorate the Parish Church in Lyndhurst, Hampshire, with a mural behind the altar, entitled The Five Wise and Five Foolish Virgins. As usual, he made his yearly contributions to the Academy, amongst which was a highly successful painting, which reportedly helped win his election to Royal Academician: The Syracusan Bride leading Wild Beasts in Procession to the Temple of Diana (1866). Perhaps the majority of his time, however, was spent on setting into his newly completed residence with all of his worldly possessions. Though located in what was, at first, a rather undesirable neighborhood, Leighton's presence began attracting many of his artist friends, who set up their studios in the buildings surrounding his house. Thus a sprawling artistic community was soon formed.

The winter of 1867-68 was spent abroad, visiting Greece, Anatolia and Palestine, away from the miserable weather back home. Upon his return he gained the status of Royal Academician, something very sought-after by the artist, as he believed it gave him the legitimacy to try and revitalize the artistic outlook of his home country.

His prolific submissions to the Academy having paid off, Leighton permitted himself to take some time off in 1869, only submitting one painting: A Nile Woman. In the meantime the artist finished renovating his new studio at home, and then departed for Greece in the fall of that year, where he spent some time before traveling onwards to Egypt. At the suggestion of Queen Victoria, the Egyptian viceroy received Leighton almost as royalty, assigning an honor guard to the artist's hotel and placing his own private yacht at Leighton's disposal to navigate the Nile.

The following years were perhaps the peak of both Leighton's fame and his productivity as an artist. Upon his return to England in the winter of 1870, Leighton put great effort into the first ever Winter Exhibition at Burlington House, London. Though not solely his idea, Leighton's active role in promoting the movement and bringing it to fruition could be considered large enough to call him its founder. It surely took a big toll on his free time, but nevertheless he managed to grace the Academy exhibition with three striking paintings that year: Hercules wrestling with Death for the Body of Alcestis, Cleoboulos instructing his daughter Cleobouline, and Greek Girls picking up Pebbles by the Seashore.

Throughout this time and into 1871, Leighton also did his best to help many of his Parisian artist friends. France's loss in the Franco-German War had driven them to London, and it was thanks to their connection with Leighton that many found employment, some quite successfully.

The winter of 1872-73 was spent in Syria, largely in pursuit of antiques as well as the study of ancient architecture. In 1873, Leighton was elected Corresponding Member by the Académie des Beaux Arts, in recognition of the work he'd done during his stay in Paris, as well as his lifetime accomplishments.

In 1876, the artist produced The Daphnephoria for one of his clients, sometimes considered to be his greatest masterpiece. At this point Leighton was at the summit of his fame, which proved to be a mixed blessing as he soon found himself completely swamped with requests for token paintings of all sorts of subjects, some of them rather mundane; one of the more notable examples being a fire screen. This period was most testing for Leighton, though he did his best to keep up. This was also the year that Leighton finished his famous clay sculpture, The Athlete Struggling with a Python, which he exhibited at the Academy in 1877. His achievements led to his being named Fellow of Trinity College in London.

The period 1878-9 saw Leighton being showered with honors. At the start of the year he was appointed President of the Jury on Paintings for the International Exhibition being held in Paris. He also participated at the exhibition with paintings of his own, submitting Elijah in the Wilderness (1878) and Music Lesson (1878). Several months hence he became President of the Royal Academy, a position which included customary knighthood, and consequently saw him elected Honorary Member of the Royal Academies of Scotland and Ireland, and Honorary Associate of the Institut de France. He was then also awarded Officier de la Légion d'Honneur and awarded a first class medal for sculpture. Even so, this was only the beginning of the awards and titles he'd receive in the upcoming decade.

The following two years were among Leighton's most prolific, with many paintings going on display in the Academy and the Grosvenor Gallery, as part of his effort to lead by example in uplifting the country's artistic standards. In 1880, he received two doctorates, a D.C.L. (Doctor of Civil Law) from Oxford University and LL.D. from Cambridge.

Between then and until 1886, Leighton enjoyed some quiet years, barring a lunette fresco he painted at London's Victoria and Albert Museum, Industrial Arts as Applied to Peace (1883), which reportedly gave the artist much grief before he was done with it. In 1886 he received the title of baronetcy from the English Crown, for his achievements and influence in society. The following year he was commissioned by the Queen to help design the Golden Jubilee Medal for the 50th celebration of her reign, on which he and his assistant worked for over eighteen hours straight before achieving a desirable result.

While the baronetcy was the highest honor he received during this decade, it was not the only one by a long shot. The German Emperor bestowed upon him the title of Knight of the Order of Art and Science, while Belgium and Coburg granted him knighthoods. In France he received a gold medal at the Exposition de la Peinture, Grand Prix pour le Sculpture-Salon, and named Chairman of the Board of Fine Arts (President du Conseil des Beaux Arts) and Commandeur de la Légion d'Honneur. He received honorary memberships in numerous art institutions across Europe, including the Royal Academies of Berlin and Brussels, the Imperial Academy of Vienna, and the Academies of St. Luke in Rome, Genoa, Antwerp, Florence, Perugia and Turin. The University of Edinburgh awarded him the honorary degree of LL.D.

His last academic honors was an Honorary Doctor of Letters degree from the University of Dublin in 1892, and an Honorary D.C.L. from the University of Durham in 1894. In his last years, Leighton found himself spending more and more time outside his studio, involved as he was with society at large. This was compounded by his failing health, with ever more frequent, and ever more severe bouts of chest pain plaguing him through the winter of 1894-95 and onward. Still, he refused to be overcome by these discomforts and continued to be a prolific artist, producing many notable paintings, including The Spirit of the Summit (c. 1894), The Maid with the Golden Hair (c. 1895), and Perseus on Pegasus Hastening to the Rescue of Andromeda (1895-96).

The spring of 1895 found Leighton finally too ill to resume his Presidential duties at the Academy, and he was ordered by his doctor to take some time off in Algiers. Before leaving, he left his resignation up to his fellow staff members, though they refused the proposition in the hopes that he would continue his work upon his return. Sadly, while his trip around the Mediterranean did alleviate his condition, it proved to be too little, too late. Perhaps feeling that the end was at hand, Leighton paid an autumnal visit to Italy instead of his habitual winter stay there, wishing to spend his last days in England.

At the New Year's celebration, Queen Victoria presented Leighton with a Barony. This caused the artist some trouble, for he was now expected to pick out a title by which to call himself, eventually choosing Baron Leighton of Stretton, in the County of Shropshire. Unfortunately, his new title was announced the day before his death, so he never took his seat in the House of Lords.

By all accounts, Leighton bore his illness surprisingly well in social situations, never letting his discomfort show when entertaining guests, even towards the very end when his angina was a source of constant pain. However, no longer in any condition for public appearances, he spent much of his time alone in his studio, working at his art.

Finally, he was taken ill a final time on the night of 23 January, 1896. After lingering for a day, Lord Leighton breathed his last words, "Give my love to the Academy," before succumbing to his illness on 25 January, 1896. He was buried in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral.


The Art of Lord Leighton by Christopher Newall. Phaidon Press, 1994.

Frederic, Lord Leighton: Eminent Victorian Artist by Richard Ormond, Stephen Jones et al. Harry N. Abrams, 1996.

The Life and Work of Sir Frederick Leighton, Bart by Leonora Blanche Lang. Forgotten Books, 2012.