I was on a recent visit to the National Gallery in London when I happened to come across three small paintings by the Victorian artist Lord Frederic Leighton. One of them was The Villa Malta (shown above) painted sometime in the 1860s, an oil-painting sketch which shows a Renaissance villa on the Aventine Hill in Rome.
What I liked about this painting was the apparent formal simplicity, with the turret of the villa shown directly-on, squeezed between two large cypress trees and a cluster of smaller bushes below. The two trees seem to pose as gatekeepers to the villa, which itself appears to breathe with light on the other side of the dark-green aperture.
The formal structure is softened by all sorts of tiny details, such as the way the left-hand cypress tree bends at its top-most branches as if to fit inside the picture frame. The whole composition is slightly off-centre too, which adds an air of naturalism — an effect which may or may not have been intentional. The perfectly captured light of a summer’s day is a pleasure to look at, and led me wonder what else Leighton had painted in a similar mode.
Frederic Leighton (1830–1896) was a British painter and sculptor who is best known for his grand depictions of classical subjects, works distinguished by their opulent colouring and emphatic sense of drama. As an artist, he possessed exceptional ability both as a draughtsman and a stylist. His lush manner of painting is best thought of as symptomatic of a certain sentimentalism and idealism that ran through the late Victorian era, one that prized the classical past as a fertile place for emotional and moral rapture.
Leighton was born in 1830 to a wealthy medical family. He spent much of his early life in Europe and only settled in London in 1860 at the age of 30. His choice of career was made possible by the family’s wealth, since his father paid him an allowance throughout his life, even if his chosen vocation was viewed with some suspicion. “My parents surrounded me with every facility to learn drawing,” he wrote in a letter of 1879, “but, strongly discountenanced the idea of my being an artist unless I could be eminent in art”.
Travelling was a big part of Leighton’s life. He could speak French, German, Italian and Spanish. It was on sojourns to Rome, Greece and North Africa that he made some of his most attractive yet least-known paintings.
Capri Sunrise was painted whilst on a trip to the Italian island in 1859. It shows a town scene from behind, with Leighton’s easel set up amid a grove of olive trees. The lighting effects are reminiscent of Jean-Baptitse-Camille Corot, whom Leighton admired deeply. Corot had taken similar trips to southern Europe in the 1820s and painted landscape sketches of exceptional beauty during his travels.
In Leighton’s work, the perfectly delineated planes of the buildings capture the slow-moving light and shadow of a sunrise. In the distance, the land and sky are painted in pastel tones of peach, mauve and blue. These colours work as the ideal ground for the more prominent shades of white, khaki and tan that make up the foreground. These simple shades match the rock rising up on the left-hand side, giving the whole foreground a unified feel and a brilliantly worked sense of space.
In 1867, Leighton made a trip to Asia Minor. On his return journey through Greece he visited the island of Rhodes. Here he made an oil paint sketch of Lindos, a coastal town known for its ancient clifftop acropolis. The view that he painted is looking down from the clifftop, away towards a rocky promontory.
The colour scheme is similar to Capri Sunrise, with yellow-ochre, peach, mauve and blue combining to make an engaging and attractive setting.
Most interestingly is the manner in which space is described in this painting. The nearness of the buildings in the lower section provide a strong visual structure, since the lines of perspective are strongly emphasized through their positioning. The vanishing point is clearly somewhere in the middle of the painting; in this way, the strip of land reaching into the sea cuts across this perspective so that the land seems to move in opposition to the dynamic of the perspective. It is fascinating push-pull effect that gives added life to the painting.
All of these works were most likely made out of doors, on the spot. They were not intended as finished pieces but as sketches, perhaps for use in the background of larger paintings, or otherwise merely as painterly exercises. As such, they are direct responses to the environment and so free of any grandiose gestures or posturing.
If Frederic Leighton’s more well-known work is striking in its bold colours and theatrical ambience, I like these paintings all the more for their elegant simplicity.