Dubbed “the most wonderful painting in existence,” Frederic Leighton’s “Flaming June” is now owned by a Puerto Rican museum
A report by Sebastian Smee for The Washington Post.
Funny story: Andrew Lloyd Webber once saw this painting in a shop on King’s Road in west London. The 1895 painting, known as “Flaming June,” had been not so much “missing” as forgotten for half a century. The composer loved it. This was the 1960s — the premiere of “Jesus Christ Superstar” was still a few years off. He asked his grandmother to lend him the 50 pounds the shop was asking, but she refused: “I will not have Victorian junk in my flat,” she explained.
Look, when it comes to Victorian art, I’m mostly with Lloyd Webber’s grandmother. But “Flaming June”? “Flaming June” is inimitable, unforgettable, and Grandma clearly hadn’t seen it when she declined to put up the cash.
“Flaming June,” by Lord Frederic Leighton (1830-1896), is such a powerful composition, so intensely colored, and erotic in such strange and disturbing ways that it transcends comparisons and makes you forget about who made it, in what context, and why. It leaves your jaw on the floor.
Along with John Everett Millais’s “The Escape of a Heretic, 1559” and a series of three paintings by Edward Burne-Jones, “Flaming June” is on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico, which has one of the world’s leading collections of Victorian art.]
The Puerto Rican museum has lent the works to New York while its main galleries are closed for repair following the devastating earthquakes of January 2020. In the meantime, of course, Puerto Rico, which had not yet fully recovered from Hurricane Maria in 2017, was recently battered by Hurricane Fiona. To be thinking about “Flaming June” in such a context is to be haunted by varieties of cognitive dissonance. It is beyond my capacities as a critic to distill that dissonance into a cheap thread of contrived wisdom or false consolation, so (forgive me) I’m just going to babble on about the painting.
Leighton was a fixture in 19th-century British art — a president of the Royal Academy and as thoroughgoing a classicist as the British Empire ever produced (his nickname was “Jupiter Olympus”). He painted “Flaming June” at the end of his life. The format is square, with sides of 47 inches, and its dominant subject, loosely based on a famous Michelangelo sculpture (the female personification of “Night” in the Medici Chapel in Florence), seems to have been squeezed into it.
Leighton set his youthful figure — a classical nymph or naiad — in a Mediterranean setting. A low sun ignites the flat water behind her somnolent head, enhancing the atmosphere of morbid Shakespearean fantasy.
Having slipped from consciousness, she seems to be slipping also from life. In the foreground, her bare foot — suggestively flexed like Raphael’s red-stockinged foot in Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s “Raphael and the Fornarina” — is the liveliest thing about her. From it, Leighton leads your eye up to her thigh, which remains parallel to the picture plane. But from there his drastic foreshortening leads the eye back in space as if along a meandering river.
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Oh, God, that orange! The radiant gown clings to her skin, suggesting the wet drapery sculpture of the Greeks (but on Mannerist steroids). Its color is set off by her blushing skin, by the rich but comparatively quiet background hues of khaki and burgundy and by the auburn of her hair, which Leighton encourages us to confuse with the textured cloth billowing all around her.
The Victorians were preoccupied with poetic connections between sleep and death, and it’s telling that Leighton has included, at top right, the branch of an oleander bush, known for its deadly toxicity. The message?
Honestly, I hate interpreting Victorian paintings, whose meanings can be so extravagantly dull, so laboriously literary. I would prefer simply to bask in the atmosphere of “Flaming June,” which Samuel Courtauld, the founder of London’s Courtauld Institute, once called “the most wonderful painting in existence.” But let me at least take a stab. The message could be either: “The classical past remains sensuously alive even as it lies in ruins all around us” or “Don’t ever burn the wood of oleander trees!” Your guess will no doubt be better than mine.