Gorgeous flamboyance at the frick

| 25 Jun 2015 | 05:23

“Flaming June” made her Manhattan debut in the month of June, but there's apparently no verifiable connection between the painting's title and the sixth month of the year. But that didn't stop The Frick Collection from opening its glorious exhibition of Frederic Leighton's Victorian masterpiece in the Oval Room in early June — the painting's warm, fleshy colors a fitting tribute to summer's arrival.

Grouped with four full-length portraits by Leighton's American expat contemporary, James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903)—in the very same room that recently hosted Vermeer's “Girl with a Pearl Earring” and, later, Parmigianino's “Schiava Turca” — “Flaming June” (ca. 1895) quite simply steals the show.

On loan until September 6 from the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico, the perfectly square painting is a product of the Aesthetic Movement, an avant-garde arts movement originating in late 19th century Europe that placed a premium on the formal qualities of color, line and composition — and touted “art for art's sake.” Subject matter and meaning were secondary to beauty and aesthetics.

Frederic Leighton was born in 1830 in Scarborough, England. He is the first and only British artist to have been ennobled, becoming Frederic, Lord Leighton, Baron of Stretton shortly before his death in 1896. In his youth, he traveled widely on the Continent, studying art in Frankfurt, Rome, Florence and Paris before moving to London in 1859. He achieved stardom at the tender age of 24 when Queen Victoria purchased one of his paintings, “Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna” (1853-55), for Buckingham Palace. He later became president of the establishment's Royal Academy of Arts, serving from 1878 until the end of his life.

The work for which he is best remembered — and whose reputation eclipses his own — is a sensuous painting of a sleeping woman curled up on a marble bench, draped in a saffron-colored, see-through gown. But the canvas, pronounced “a gorgeous piece of flamboyance” by collector Samuel Courtauld, was largely consigned to oblivion in the 20th century.

In fact, the painting now being celebrated at the Frick lay hidden for years behind a false panel above a fireplace in a house on the outskirts of London, where it was discovered only in 1962. Victoriana had fallen out of favor in the first half of the last century, its art regarded as out of touch with modern sensibilities — “sentimental and superficial,” in the words of Associate Curator Pablo Pérez d'Ors of the Museo de Arte de Ponce at a preview of the exhibit.

Leighton primarily took an academic approach to painting, preparing a multitude of careful studies as prelude to the final product. (The small oil, “Sketch for 'Flaming June,'” dated 1894-95, has been reunited here with the completed work for the first time since the 1890s.) His painstaking style is rife with allusions to the classical world and Renaissance art, though “he was a modernist in his own right,” the Frick's Senior Curator Susan Grace Galassi said at the show's preview. “Like Whistler, [he regarded] the formal elements of art as more important than the content.” In other words, it all came down to composition, form and color.

Taking Michelangelo's sculpture “Night” (1521-34) and his erotic painting “Leda and the Swan” (1529) as points of departure, Leighton created a work that was “an ingenious composition of a circular figure in a perfectly square canvas,” Galassi said, noting that the form of the idealized woman—drawn from a model and naked under the drapery — “suggests energy in repose.”

The painting was purchased in 1963 by industrialist Luis A. Ferré for the museum he founded in Ponce, where it became “the glory” of the collection. But it is more than just a pretty picture — and anything but superficial, the speakers at the preview emphasized. The glistening sea in the background was inspired by Leighton's travels throughout the Mediterranean, but the tranquility of the scene is belied by the oleander shrub on the upper right — a poisonous plant that was a recurring motif in 19th poetry and painting, Pérez d'Ors said, injecting “a note of death or danger” in an otherwise peaceful tableaux.

The curator speculated that Leighton, who suffered from angina pectoris in his later years, may have conceived of the work as “a reflection on his imminent death.” He concluded that it was the artist's “swan song ... an appreciation of beauty and the classical world.” Leighton died less than a year after the piece's completion.

The ultimate appeal of “Flaming June,” a ball of fire in a tabernacle frame, is its mystery. Its title is oblique — it may be a reference to the month of June (perhaps the woman is a personification?), but the name could also point to the figure's name. There is no storyline; time and place are left unclear.

As Pérez d'Ors said of Leighton's flaming legacy: “Its elusiveness draws us in. Ambiguity is what he was looking for.”