Dangerous Beauty… Leighton’s Masterpiece “Flaming June” Ignites the Frick

Leighton’s Flaming June, Frick Collection, June 9 – September 6, 2015

by Jai Imbrey, PhD.

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

To sleep perchance to dream… A beautiful woman in a flame colored gown slumbers on a marble bench overlooking a radiant sea.   She sleeps with the total abandon of the young. Her rosy face rests against her arm with her unbound hair swept aside to reveal her white neck. An innocent maid asleep on a warm afternoon? Perhaps she is a Roman bride in a saffron tunic awaiting her groom, or an ancient poetess in the thrall of a divine stupor? Or, freed of myth and legend, simply a timeless evocation of summertime beauty?

What draws anyone on a warm afternoon to visit Lord Leighton’s Flaming June (ca. 1895) in the cool penumbra of the Frick? Like a torch in a shadowy hall, the electric orange of her radiant gown delivers a jolt of adrenalin. In this age of provocatively ugly art (such as up Pierre Huyghe’s Human Mask sculpture around the corner on the roof garden of the Metropolitan), she provides a fresh opportunity to celebrate the unadulterated beauty of the female form. Arriving in New York for the first time in 30 years, Flaming June is a masterpiece of academic draftsmanship, heightened by a frisson of forbidden fruit.

Just below Flaming June’s surface lies something darker, more erotic, a different form of dreaming, perhaps even a harbinger of death. She is caldron of contradictions. While she appears to belong to a distant dreamland, her above life-size figure, shown close-up, gives the impression of cascading into our space and beckoning our touch. Her gentle repose is negated by the serpentine arrangement of her body, folded in on its self so that it appears to spill out over her seat in a fan of silken limbs. All the while, her robust form is dematerialized by the shimmering creases of her filmy robe. And what of her innocence? The childlike aspect of her slumber conflicts with the sensual transparency of her dress which allows a glimpse of the aureole of her nipple, her inner thigh and the fine curve of her bare ankle.

The sunset theme and the toxic crimson oleander flowers tumbling over the railing remind us of the potentially deadly nature of her sleep. The Victorians were obsessed with youth, love and poison (think Henry Wallis’ Death of Chatterton, 1866), leaving us to wonder if she will she ever awaken?

But, oh, the bitter taste her beauty had!
He sickened at a breath of poison-flowers,
A languid humor stole away the hours..,

writes George Meredith, a poet widely read in Leighton’s circle, about a lover’s sleep-like death induced by deadly blooms. In keeping with many tombstones of the period, Christina Rosetti also alludes to death as a form of dreaming.

When I am dead, my dearest,
…And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.
– Christina Rossetti, 1862,

At the same time, the touch of scarlet petals harmonizes with the spiral of golds, olives and persimmon, completing the circular disposition of colors that energize the painting, suggesting less death than erotic fantasy.

In her time, Flaming June was revered as the ultimate expression of art for art sake, a form of muse for the Aesthetic movement, inspired by antiquity and Medieval lore, suggestive of refined pleasure and an escape from the industrial world. Yet in the 60s (a time of bra-burning and Andy Warhol soup cans), this type of maiden was often seen as a saccharine vestige of Victorian fantasy and was vastly undervalued by the art market. Hence her miraculous discovery in 1963 by Luis Ferré, the founder of Puerto Rico’s Museo de arte de Ponce, at a London dealership selling for a mere 2000 pounds. The painting had recently emerged from behind a false panel over a mantle in a home outside of London.

Before her mysterious thirty year disappearance in the 30s, Flaming June had hung in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (1915-1928). An early photograph of Leighton’s luxurious London studio taken in April 1, 1895 shows her in a gold tabernacle frame alongside a painted preparatory study. This neoclassic frame served as a model for today’s current replica which is based on rarely preserved original molds. Sadly, the one jarring note is the current frame’s garish gold color finish, reminiscent of a Las Vegas house of ill repute.

Lord Fredrick Leighton (1830-1896) painted Flaming June just one year before he died, capping a long, successful career that won him a knighthood. He came from a wealthy family of merchants and studied painting in Germany and at the Florentine Accademia di Belle Arti. Early on he was recognized as a remarkable draftsman specializing in history painting. His handsome house in Holland Park (now the Leighton Museum) is a virtual time machine for the Aesthetic Age. He furnished his home in jewel tones with arts and crafts furniture of extraordinary quality often inspired by Japan and the Near East.

Leighton travelled widely, often visiting Florence where he drew Michelangelo’s Night, which inspired Flaming June’s unusual pose. Indeed, every nuance of the sleeping face and fall of drapery reveals Leighton’s constant attachment to shadow, line and texture, The artist made a series of sketches both nude and dressed before settling on his scheme. Leighton also studied Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus to investigate nuances of skin, texture, and the integration of light and form. Yet Sleeping June bears the stamp of a specific type of beauty favored by the Pre-Raphaelites. She closely resembles one of the loveliest actresses of his day, Leighton’s friend and occasional model, Dorothy Dean.

For some Flaming June is kitschy archaism. She was reviled in the New York Times June 11 review as “Painted with academic virtuosity in viscous glazes, she seems as if immersed in Jell-O.” Yet positioned at the Frick between two vertical MacNeil Whistler portraits, (viewed as avant garde in 1880s), Flaming June presents her own blend of modernity. The abstraction of her pose and audacity of her color scheme make her a forerunner of Fauvism and Expressionism. The theme of enchanted,drugged or deathlike sleep is also a trope in contemporary literature from Haruki Murakami’s Eri in After Dark to Isabel Allende’s Rosa in House of Spirits. And the 2015 sci-fi film Ex Machina looks at sleeping robots kept in special cupboards ready to come alive as beautiful and dangerous servers.

 Flaming June possesses the timeless magnetic beauty of some women whom we cannot stop staring at. Her sleep allows the gaze to linger without feeling self-conscious. So, we look on pondering at the mysterious nature of beauty and desire — a tightrope between the near, the forbidden and inaccessible. Leighton never married, was rumored to have had affairs with beautiful women and close-friendships with men. Perhaps, Flaming June’s androgynous beauty (for she has the sturdiness of young male athlete) aligns with Leighton’s own ambiguous sexuality, his own inner unrest.

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