“Flaming June” by Frederic Leighton (1830-1896), a famous Victorian painting, has come to New York for the first time for a solo turn at the Frick Collection, Ken Johnson writes in this review for The New York Times.
Anyone who’s ever perused books of late-19th-century British art will instantly recognize the idyllic image of a young woman in a sheer, incandescent orange dress curled up in sleep on piles of drapery on a marble bench, with a sunstruck Mediterranean in the distance. She’s particularly memorable for her disproportionately long and muscular right thigh. Tightly wrapped in diaphanous fabric, it extends from buttock to bended knee across the lower middle of the picture, practically dwarfing the upper part of her body. Leighton based her pose on Michelangelo’s sculpture “Night” and on a copy of his lost painting “Leda and the Swan,”both of which feature similarly bent legs with powerful thighs.
Measuring just under 4 feet by 4 feet, “Flaming June,” circa 1895, appears within a brightly gold-leafed, tabernacle frame that imitates the Ionic architecture of ancient Greco-Roman temples. It invites viewers into a hallucinatory space of pagan mystery. At the Frick, the whole assemblage hangs between dark, wooden, Ionic pilasters in the museum’s Oval Room. In the company of James McNeill Whistler’s tall portraits of three fashionable women and a man, all brushily rendered in muted colors (they are permanent Frick fixtures), “Flaming June” glows. It looks as if she was always meant to be here. (Why it’s called “Flaming June,” no one knows.)
It’s not one of the world’s greatest works of art — this isn’t anything like Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” which visited the Frick in 2013. Leighton’s subject has none of the magical vitality of Vermeer’s. Painted with academic virtuosity in viscous glazes, she seems as if immersed in Jell-O. But as an artifact of Victorian consciousness, Leighton’s painting is exceptionally interesting.
Pablo Pérez d’Ors, associate curator of European art at the Museo de Arte de Ponce, in Ponce, P.R., the painting’s permanent residence, notes in his catalog essay that the beautiful woman asleep in some archaic past was a recurrent motif in Victorian art. He speculatively connects that with fantasies about opium dens popularized in stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, among others, which “paved the way for the appearance of symbolic allusions to the unconscious and to death.” Along these lines, he points out that the red flowers in the scene’s upper-right corner are oleanders, which were known to be poisonous. This makes the woman a femme fatale, a dangerously alluring figure who would seduce the unwary into oblivion.
Because she’s asleep and possibly dreaming, and because the image itself is like a dream, it’s hard to resist some psychoanalysis, the method that Freud was inventing around the same time that Leighton was working on his picture, the last and most famous of his career. Two elements are conspicuous: the weirdly oversized, unmistakably phallic thigh and the fluttering drapery all around the figure, which makes her appear to be “enfolded in a field of energy,” as Ms. Galassi puts it in her catalog essay. What else can this be, a Freudian might rhetorically ask, but an image of what the French call “la petite mort”? But the broader context of European history and its accelerating second Industrial Revolution is worth considering, too. The figure of the languid woman is more than just an object of erotic desire. She’s the opposite of the rationalist, ever-striving, murderously competitive spirit — once conventionally thought of as distinctively masculine. She embodies a yearning to relax, to retire from the fray and take pleasure in just being alive. As a shape-shifting archetype, she turns up repeatedly in Modernist art: in paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, and countless other, usually male, artists. She’s the countercultural soul of modernity.
Leighton himself was no rebel. Born into a wealthy family and trained in Frankfurt, Paris and Rome, he was for many years president of the Royal Academy. But the 20th century wasn’t kind to his memory. Until the 1970s, Victorian art in general was regarded by sophisticates as stale, morally stultifying, formulaic kitsch. Then the tide turned. With their complex narratives, poetic metaphors, references to times past, the Victorians appealed to a Postmodernist sensibility. That new enthusiasm precipitated an avalanche of art books in which “Flaming June” was frequently reproduced. Now it belongs as much popular as to high culture. You can even buy “Flaming June” jewelry: earrings and pendants featuring miniature reproductions of the picture.
That the painting is so widely known today is owed mainly to Luis A. Ferré, who, in 1965, founded the Museo de Arte de Ponce. How Mr. Ferré acquired it is a tale of luck and passion. From 1915 to 1928, the painting was exhibited at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, after which it disappeared. Then in 1962 it was discovered hidden behind a false panel in a house in London. The following year Mr. Ferré spotted Leighton’s siren in a London gallery and, as he put it, “fell in love with her at first sight.” He bought it for about $8,000, factoring in inflation. The original frame was lost, but it turned out that the molds used to make it still existed at Arnold Wiggins and Sons. The firm created a new frame just like the old one in 1994, and “Flaming June,” called in its day “the most wonderful painting in existence” by the collector Samuel Courtauld, was finally restored to its former glory.