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The Epoch Times
The Epoch Times
1 Apr 2023

NextImg:The 'Mona Lisa' of the Southern Hemisphere: Frederic Leighton’s Iconic ‘Flaming June’

The permanent collection of Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico contains one of the most noteworthy holdings of Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite art to be found outside of the United Kingdom. The Museum’s founder, Luis A. Ferré, assembled this spectacular collection from the late 1950s through the mid 1970s, a time in which these types of artworks were sorely out of fashion. However, during the Victorian age when these works were originally created, they were hugely popular.

An artistic figurehead of this era was Lord Frederic Leighton (1830–1896). During his lifetime, Leighton’s meticulously painted, virtuosic artwork garnered international interest. His first major painting was bought by Queen Victoria. As his career prospered, he advanced through the Royal Academy of Arts, eventually becoming its president. Shortly before his death, he was ennobled, the only British artist to be awarded this honor.

“Flaming June,” 1895, by Frederic Leighton. Oil on canvas. Museo de Arte de Ponce, Ponce, Puerto Rico. (Public Domain)

Leighton’s most famous painting is “Flaming June.” This masterpiece and icon of Victorian Art is part of Museo de Arte de Ponce’s permanent collection, and it has acquired the sobriquet “The Mona Lisa of the Southern Hemisphere.”

As the Museum’s main galleries are closed for repair due to the 2020 earthquake damage, the painting, along with several other Pre-Raphaelite works from its collection, is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York through February 2024. The Met’s Director, Max Hollein, said upon the announcement of the loan, “Few works rival the beauty of Leighton’s `Flaming June.’”

“Flaming June” was painted during the final year Leighton’s life. The painting’s composition, its figure’s form, and the artist’s use of radiant color mesmerize the viewer. The sleeping woman, resplendent on marble seating, is portrayed in a coiled, fetal-like position. The circular shape of her figure is juxtaposed against complicated lines and angles, as seen in her curved arms, and the imposed geometry of the square canvas. She is garbed in a vivid orange diaphanous fabric, which brings, along with her flushed skin, a heightened sensuality to the picture. The pose of this “personification of June” was inspired partly by Michelangelo’s famous sculpture “Night,” made for a Medici tomb in Florence’s Basilica of San Lorenzo, as well as the impromptu repose of a tired model.

Leighton includes oleanders in his invented, timeless Mediterranean backdrop. The ornamental plant has an ancient history of cultivation in the real Mediterranean and is highly poisonous. It is unknown whether its inclusion in the canvas symbolizes an analogy between the sleeping woman and death as there are no written remnants as to Leighton’s intentions regarding the deeper meaning of the painting and its title.

Head and figure studies for “Flaming June,” 1895, by Frederick Leighton. Art Renewal Center. (Public Domain)

“Flaming June” was critically acclaimed at its debut exhibition at the Royal Academy. Its subsequent ownership history is full of unusual twists and turns. The work was on loan for a number of years to the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, but was sold by its owner in the early 1930s. It did not reappear for sale until 1963—at a market trader’s stall in Chelsea, from where it was sold to a frame-maker for £50.

Several subsequent owners followed in the same year, including a hairdresser, before it was bought by an art historian and dealer who specialized in and championed the critical reassessment of Victorian works. The dealer sold the painting to Luis A. Ferré, one of the founders of the Museo de Arte de Ponce, for $1,000, and that is how it entered the collection of the museum.

In several museum collections there are assorted surviving studies that Leighton made in preparation for painting “Flaming June.” These sketches depict the draperies, nude figure, and overall composition. However, a unique head study had only been known to scholars from an 1895 illustration in the “Magazine of Art” until 2014, when auction specialists were valuing the estate of Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe. Simon Toll, Sotheby’s Victorian Art specialist, describes how he discovered the original head study “hanging behind the door in Lady Roxburghe’s bedroom at West Horsley Place … This head study for the painting is the last piece of the jigsaw in terms of the preparatory work Leighton undertook before starting on the big oil painting. It is a thrilling find.”

The work was likely purchased by Lady Roxburghe’s grandfather directly from Leighton’s estate, which was sold off at Christie’s after the artist’s 1896 death. In 2015, Lady Roxburghe’s heir sold the study at Sotheby’s London for £167,000, achieving a record price for a work on paper by the artist. The work has once again disappeared into a private collection.

Photograph of Lord Leighton in the studio of his estate at 2 Holland Park Road, 1894, by J. P. Mayall. (Public Domain)

An opportunity to immerse oneself in Leighton’s world with its specific aesthetic ideals has reemerged with the October 2022 reopening of Leighton House, the artist’s house turned museum. The Holland Park, London house underwent an extensive £8 million renovation. The specifically designed artist studio, which is where Leighton painted “Flaming June,” was restored to how it looked during the artist’s lifetime. The exterior of the building has a restrained brick façade built in the classical style that belies its exquisitely rich interiors with given names such as Arab Hall, Silk Room, and Narcissus Hall that are filled once again with many of their original furnishings and decorations. Leighton’s inspiration for constructing Arab Hall was “for the sake of looking at something beautiful every once in a while.”

Leighton was a master at creating beauty in his art and home; now a flaming sun has dawned over a new “Leighton age.”