London – In the early 1860s, the painter Frederic Leighton was seeking a new source of inspiration. His narrative paintings of the mid-1850s which had proved so popular were losing their market appeal. Drawing on his knowledge of developments in French art – he’d been living in Paris before establishing himself in London in 1859 – Leighton began to explore a new and personal style. The story-telling aspect of his work was replaced with figurative compositions that depended entirely on mood. Sea Echoes from 1861, which is to be offered at Bonhams 19th Century and British Impressionist Art Sale in London on Wednesday 29 March 2023, is a triumphant early example of his mastery of what came to be known as Aestheticism. Untraced since 1960, this rediscovered work is estimated at £250,000-350,000.
Charles O’Brien, Bonhams Director of 19th Century Painting, said: “This wonderfully sensuous painting is an important rediscovery and casts new light on Leighton’s early flirtation with Aestheticism. The flesh tones and the texture and colour of the model’s hair are beautifully captured and appear translucent in the light of the sun. The fabrics of the dress and the floral hanging are richly given in paint, whether in the ethereal and floating softness of the garment around her shoulders, arms and bosom, or the gorgeous ornateness of the floral hanging. It is a work designed to give pleasure to the viewer and represents a radical departure from the solemn realities of previous generations of British Victorian painters.”
Leighton (1830-1896) had been trained in a European academic method, and Sea Echoes reflects his formative experiences in France and Germany. It was his practice to make preparatory chalk and pencil drawings from the nude and draped model. Studies would then follow which would establish the overall format of the intended composition and determine how the figure would be placed. Once he was ready to apply paint to canvas, however, Leighton had the skill and confidence to work in a way that was naturalistic and unstilted, with rich colours and freedom of handling that made his pictures fresh and spontaneous.
Among other highlights of the 73-lot sale is a work by another pillar of 19th century British painting, Sir John Everett Millais. Forget-Me-Not, estimated at £200,000-300,000, is a portrait of the artist’s daughter Effie James. Although it was exhibited at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1883, the painting was almost certainly intended as a family picture and indeed it stayed in the family until after the deaths of Millais and his wife. Effie was one of Millais’ favourite models, appearing in more of his works than any of his other children. She was named after her mother, the former wife of John Ruskin from whom she had obtained a much-publicised annulment on the grounds of his ‘incurable impotency’.
Forget-Me-Not was well received by the critics who praised its technical soundness and the artist’s ability to capture the subject’s beauty and freshness. Millais’ neighbour and friend Rupert Potter photographed the work in progress sometimes accompanied by his famous daughter Beatrix who recalled in her journal having seen the painting in the artist’s studio.
Frederic, Lord Leighton was a towering figure in Victorian Art, both as a painter and a sculptor and his works were held in high regard during his lifetime. He was elected President of the Royal Academy in 1878 and served until his death in 1896. A pillar of the establishment, he was knighted in 1878 and in 1896 became the first painter ever to be elevated to the House of Lords. He did not live to enjoy the honour, dying the day after the letters patent creating him Baron Leighton which made his the shortest-lived peerage in history.
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