In 2008, Leighton House Museum purchased Clytie; one of the final paintings Leighton was working on at the time of his death in January 1896. This was the most important single acquisition made by the museum since its foundation and was made possible by a grant of £337,500 from the Heritage Lottery Fund and further grants from the Art Fund and the Friends of Leighton House.
After Leighton died the work remained in his studio and was exhibited in its unfinished state at the Royal Academy exhibition later that year. Critics showered the work with praise. One particularly enamoured commentator remarking ‘it is a masterly work, admirable in its passionate intensity of expression not less than for its learned draughtsmanship and strength of style. The whirling sunlit clouds are quite unfinished, but no part of the picture shows any indication of failing power.’
The Museum also owns several sketches relating to the painting (see gallery above).
Three new drawings
The museum has recently acquired three important works on paper from the same private collection. One is by Leighton and two by his friend George Howard, 9th Earl of Carlisle.
The work by Leighton is a copy made in watercolour of Raphael’s Disputa in the Stanza della Signatura (Room of the Signature) in the Vatican Palace in Rome and dates from shortly after his arrival in the city in 1852. This drawing is of particular interest because Leighton’s copy of the other half of the fresco was acquired by the museum from the Maas Gallery in 2000 and its acquisition therefore reunites the pair and completes the image.
Leighton was photographed on countless occasions and was also the subject of numerous portraits, but informal images of him are extremely rare as are those where he is shown either painting or drawing. The addition of these two drawings (recto and verso) of Leighton on a sketching expedition are therefore of particular interest for the collection. Made by George Howard, it has yet to be established if a date and location can be attributed to these images. The two artists undoubtedly sketched together on more than one occasion and Leighton’s relaxed appearance and casual dress testifies to the informality of the event. These drawings are also of interest as the only known record of Leighton wearing the spectacles which he apparently always wore when working.
The Italian artist Giovanni Costa was a great friend of both Leighton and George Howard. Leighton spent time with Costa in Italy almost every year and did all he could to further his career in London. Howard became Costa’s devoted pupil and collected a great many works by the artist. This drawing, a portrait study of Costa by Howard, therefore represents the connection between this triumvirate of artists and complements Leighton’s portrait of Costa of 1878, acquired by the museum in 2004.
Colour Sketch for Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna
In November 1852 Frederic Leighton arrived in Rome. He was just 21 years old and had only recently completed his training in Frankfurt. Over the next two and a half years he worked on the paintings with which he would launch his career: The Reconciliation of the Monatgues and the Capulets over the Dead Bodies of Romeo and Juliet and Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna is carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence.
Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna was submitted to the Royal Academy in 1855. Despite its great size (it was over five metres long) and Leighton’s youth and lack of any reputation in this country, the work was selected and displayed prominently. On the first day of the exhibition, with the encouragement of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria bought it, making this one of the most dramatic debuts in the history of British art.
Leighton House Museum is delighted to have now acquired the colour sketch for Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna at auction in New York. Leighton followed a painstaking and rigorous process in making the picture, establishing a method that he adhered to for the rest of his career. He first produced drawn studies of individual heads, draperies and other details. A number of these pencil drawings are also held by the museum and include some of the most beautiful studies of his career. He then produced a highly-detailed pencil study for the whole composition and finally a colour sketch. The purpose of this sketch in oils was to establish the arrangement and balance of colours across the composition. Once completed Leighton would then start work on the canvas itself, hardly deviating from the studies already produced.
The subject of the painting is taken from Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects published in Florence in 1550. Leighton drew on a passage that described the triumphant procession of an altarpiece through the streets of Florence following its completion by the artist Giovanni Cimabue in about 1285. This he combined with a second passage in which the visiting King of Anjou is taken to view the finished work (the King can be seen on horseback at the far right of the composition). The procession includes many of the great artists of the time, including the young Giotto who is shown at the centre, clasping the hand of Cimabue himself. The poet Dante leans against the wall at the far right watching the procession pass by. The painting is a celebration of artists and artistic achievement – subjects that the young Leighton was perhaps eager to promote as he considered his furture career.
There are two main differences between the colour sketch and the finished work. The dog shown at bottom right was eliminated in the final composition as was the figure overlooking the procession from the top of the wall.
The finished painting remains in the Royal Collection but can be seen in the National Gallery where it is located above the main staircase into the building.
Leighton House Museum is grateful to the Art Fund and the Friends of Leighton House Museum for making this acquisition possible.