Lord Frederic Leighton
Click Image to Enlarge
Image courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Study of a Man in a Short Tunic
Black and white chalks on buff paper
30.0 x 20.5 cm
Purchased (Virtue-Tebbs Bequest Fund), 1963
WA 1963.89.53

Frederic Leighton (1830-1896) came from a wealthy English family.  His father was court physician to two tsars of Russia; he made a considerable fortune through his profession, retired early and was able to travel a lot with his family to various parts of the Continent.  Young Leighton was exposed to cosmopolitan culture, foreign languages (which he learned easily), and he frequented galleries and museums.  He started drawing very early in his life.  When he was sixteen his family more or less settled in Frankfurt where he studied at the Städelesches Kunstinstitut (art institute).  Later he studied art under several different masters in Brussels, Paris, and Rome; being influenced by the Nazarene school—an art group which had aspirations similar to those of the Pre-Raphaelites.[i]  When he was in his early twenties the family settled back in England, but Frederic continued to travel through Europe, and in the early 1850s he lived predominantly in Rome where he met lots of artists and writers (sculptor John Gibson, poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning).  According to many records he was emotionally insecure, and developed no lasting relationships or sexual attachments that we know of.  While in Rome he painted Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna Is Carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence, ca. 1853/55, which marked his success as one of the most promising artists of his time.  This painting was huge—17 feet high and 7 feet long—and it was bought for the Royal Collection.[ii]  Another famous painting of the period is The Reconciliation of the Montagues and the Capulets Over the Bodies of Romeo and Juliet, 1853/55.  Through the 1850s he exhibited at the Royal Academy, though  achieving only moderate success.  He also befriended several Pre-Raphaelite artists like Sir John Everett Millais, and he continued traveling, even venturing to North Africa.  He eventually opened a studio in London, but never stopped traveling; he said he traveled to search for “new motifs and inspiration”.[iii]  In the 1860s Leighton was becoming more and more successful and financially stable.  He became one of the highest paid artists of his day, the prices of his paintings being quite high (4,000-6,000 pounds).  He also was investing wisely, so he was able to hold on to the larger portion of his money.[iv]

Leighton’s subjects represented a wide range; portraits of individuals, large group scenes, nudes, paintings relating to literary themes (Romeo and Juliet), historical themes (Dante in Exile), mythological themes, (Captive Andromache or Orpheus and Eurydice).[v]  He often used classical backgrounds for his portraits or scenes.  In later paintings he also displayed his great passion for landscapes; he was particularly fascinated by sun-drenched seas and coastal views.  So, very often he would paint his portraits against an open landscape.  He was also a very accomplished sculptor, and even designed the tomb for his friend the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Rome, 1861.[vi]

He also created frescos, e.g. for a church in England, 1862; later frescos for the Victoria and Albert Museum.  By the mid-1860s he had received enough recognition as an artist that he was asked to join the Royal Academy, of which in 1878 he became the president.  In the late 1860s he built a huge sumptuous house which he furnished with many treasures that he collected during his travels and in this house he was giving elaborate parties, especially musical evenings.  A lot of things in his house were from the Mid-East and had typical Islamic character like Arabic tiles.[vii]

Leighton is, as far as his technique is concerned, one of the most accomplished artists ever.  One area of particular expertise was his treatment of the human body, which he was able to show in all its anatomical perfection.  Leighton studied Michelangelo’s works; and the powerfully-outlined anatomy of Leighton’s works reminds one strongly of Michelangelo’s figures.[viii]

A second area in which Leighton excelled was his treatment of fabric, which he used predominantly for draping over his human figures.  He was able to create with the greatest technical accuracy an almost endless variety of fabrics of sensuous textures which to the viewer seem almost touchable.  His velvets, brocades, satins, or cottons not only look most realistic, but also evoke a definitely tactile impression in the viewer.  His mastery also extended to the ability to create intricate folds, creases and layers of materials as molded by the body, and as they in turn reflect the contours of the body which is beneath them.

The drawing entitled Study of a Man in a Short Tunic was executed on buff paper with black and white chalks.  The date of this sketch is unknown, and it is extremely difficult to match the figure in this sketch with any particular painting since Leighton created a huge number of paintings with numerous figures draped in tunic-like outfits and seen from behind.  Seeing a study of a figure from the back is not only common but quite typical, as Leighton painted figures in almost every position and from every angle imaginable.  The figure we see is not complete, we don’t see most of the head, we see the legs only roughly up to about the knee, and only parts of the forearms.  We can tell this is a male figure from the mass and thickness of the thigh, the broad shoulders and back and the muscularity of the forearms and elbow area.  The artist’s attention seems to be centered on the tunic, and the way the fabric hangs, folds and creases on the back of the body.  When viewing this figure we can clearly see that the tunic is somewhat oversized, baggy, almost ballooning in the back and around the arms in a multitude of loose folds.  We can also see part of a sash-like belt falling around his hip—there is probably more of the sash tied around his waist as it is hidden under the fabric of the bulging top of the tunic.  Leighton was able to create the folds so suggestively because of his usage of rubbed black chalk to shadow the areas of the creases and of white chalk to highlight areas exposed to the light and to accentuate the bulging areas of the folds. 

The way the body is posed suggests movement in the figure.  It looks like the body is twisted to show that the man is moving.  His hip seems to be turned slightly to the left while his shoulders are twisted in the other direction.  The shoulders are not parallel to the waist and both arms are raised; the left arm bent almost creating a 90 degree angle.  That the body is in motion is confirmed by the fact that the left leg is bent at the knee as if the figure was running or walking toward something.  He looks as though he has just come from somewhere and is either trying to get people’s attention or announce something.  This idea is also expressed by his outstretched arms which are to the sides, as if he was trying to communicate with them—waving them around to catch people’s attention or draw people together.

Obviously, we do not really know who this figure represents.  Is he Roman?  Is it a mythological figure?  Why is the tunic so short?  Is it a sketch for a painting or a mural?  But even though the image is not finished and we do not know the totality of what it represents we can still admire the execution of the work.

[i] Russell Ash, Lord Leighton (London: Pavilion Books Limited, 1995)

[ii] Christopher Newall, The Art of Lord Leighton (Oxford: Phaidon, 1990) 14.

[iii] Russell Ash

[iv] Russell Ash

[v] Newall, 12-14

[vi] Russell Ash

[vii] Russell Ash

[viii] Stephen Jones, “Leighton’s Debt to Michelangelo,” Apollo 143 (1996): 35.

Sara Brady

Home | Bibliography