In Honor of My Beloved Husband David on his 41st Birthday


Flaming June by Frederic Lord Leighton, 1895 Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico

Today my husband David is celebrating his 41st birthday. Regrettably, he is in Las Vegas for a conference so I won’t get to see him until this weekend. In honor of his special day, I have decided to talk about his favorite painting: Flaming June, by Frederic Lord Leighton.

When I met David, he had just moved into his new Manhattan bachelor pad on E. 39th St, between 1st and 2nd Avenue. It was a nice, one bedroom apartment on the 37th floor overlooking the UN and the East River. He was moving from a furnished apartment in Long Island, so he had nothing but several large boxes. No furniture, not even a bed for the first week or so, he slept on the floor until the bed he ordered arrived. Very bohemian, I thought. The only actually furnishing he had brought with him was a framed print of Leighton’s Flaming June. I was so struck by his love of this painting which I had also often admired,  that I bought him a book of the works of Lord Leighton for his birthday, just a month later.

So what was it about this painting that so moved my husband. He’s a tech guy, Phd in computer science, very left brained. A self-described philistine, really, when it comes to art, though I think he has more to offer than he lets on. But this painting stayed with us for many years and through three moves until I sold it at a garage sale before we made the big move west. Even then, it was a struggle for him to let it go. So let’s see if we can see what he saw in this painting.

Lord Leighton painted and exhibited Flaming June in 1895. He was one of England’s greatest painters of the 19th century and held the position of President of the Royal Academy from1878 – 1896. He had had a cosmopolitan upbringing, studying painting in Frankfurt and regularly travelling to Paris and Italy for scenic inspiration. His oeuvre grew out of the late Neo-classical movement that was to blossom into an artistic renaissance in Victorian England. This neo-classical style is finely exhibited in Flaming June. He is often associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly due to his subject matter which seems more inspired by the flowering of Greece or the height of the Middle Ages than 19th century Victorian England. He, however, didn’t identify himself with their movement, though he was friends with many of them.

Flaming June was painted late in his career and exhibited in his final exhibition before his death in 1896. In many ways it is a song to the bloom of youth which he may have been longing for in his final days. The painting focuses on a young woman in repose. After years of painting narratives, this image seems to tell no story that we can determine from its context. Merely an unknown young woman has chosen a cozy spot overlooking an azure sea to take a nap in the sun.

What strikes me first is Leighton’s handling of fabrics and textures. He is a master at painting the “hand” of a fabric. I’m an avid fan of fabric and can often identify the fabrics in Leighton’s paintings just by how he handles the drapery and the way he paints the interaction of the fabric with the light. In Flaming June, there are three different fabrics enwrapping our resting maiden. First of all, she has chosen a rather uncomfortable marble bench for her nap, so she first draped a piece of brown velvet over the cold seat. This is visible in the lower portion of the painting and its identification comes from the heavier folds and matte texture of the fabric. She has then surrounded herself with a crinkled silk wrap which winds around her entire body, covering a portion of her head. The light hitting the left side of this fabric denotes some iridescence which indicates silk to me. Its burnished color almost matches the color of her hair and from a distance, it often looks as if it is her hair that is enfolding her. Finally, it is her garment that is the most astonishing orange. Here Leighton has painted a soft, sheer cotton voile which drapes and clings to her form both hiding and revealing her body beneath. Leighton took pains to insure that the drapery clung to her where he wanted her revealed, breasts, thigh and gathered and scrunched around her periphery, mimicking the burnished silk into which it rests. The richness of his rendering allows the viewer to visually feel the textures of these fabrics and imagine their weight and texture against the skin.

What is also astonishing about this painting is Leighton’s handling of her complex pose which energizes the dynamic composition. The dramatic angle of foreshortening reveals a well-seasoned master of the craft. Leighton has noted the inspiration for the pose came from observing his model at rest in his studio. She is all twisted and curled, emphasizing the curves of her body and contrasting her softness with the hardness of the marble she lays upon. The s-curving line of her body creates a series of arcs which stand out against the strong horizontal lines of the marble bench and the sea beyond, a contrast that is mimicked in the undefined border which hangs above the scene. Leighton is clearly highlighting her youthful softness and suppleness at rest against the tension of the hard, angular stone and suggesting the ultimate fluidity lies in the sea beyond. The scene could be interpreted as a reflection on dissolution as one moves from the substantial hardness of the stone to the subtle softness of the figure and finally to the ultimate fluidity of the sea, which is also at rest. Could Leighton be reflecting on his own dissolution here?

As with all of Leighton’s work, there is a velvety smoothness to the overall palate. He achieves this by the subtle richness of the colors he chooses which have a darker undertone. He is a master of color and Flaming June is a masterpiece of color with the bright orange against the deeper burnished browns contrasting with the ivory of the marble and the sunlit blue of the sea beyond. Each color softly flows into the next calmly, smoothly, expectedly, comfortably. His tones make me want to pull the colors off the canvas and wrap myself in their luxury!

Ok, settle down, all you fellas out there, lets get to the heart of the matter. What we have here is a beautiful, voluptuous, sensual young woman laying barely dressed and vulnerable, to the gaze of the viewer. Her breasts are plumped up by her encircling arm revealing her soft nipple through the veil of the fabric. The curve of her buttocks and thigh is barely shielded by the gauzy garment which clings to her form. Her bare foot, extending from the hem of her gown invites the viewer to explore further beneath the folds. She is a cornucopia of sensual delights sent to inflame the desires of those who look upon her. Thus Leighton’s title may not refer to the color of her gown after all.

So is it the tactile splendor of her draperies which enfold her that attracted my husband to this painting or the masterful handling of her complex pose? Perhaps it was Leighton’s subtle contemplation on the dissolution of life or the velvety richness of his color palette which called to his soul. . . or was it just the nipple?  ; )

I promised my husband when I sold the print that I would replace it with a better frame. Perhaps it’s time to bring Flaming June back.  Happy Birthday, my love.

Newall, Christopher, The Art of Lord Leighton, London: Phaidon, 1990.

~ by fultonm2010 on January 18, 2011.

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