Painting of the month for June 2016

Flaming June

1895. Oil on canvas Museo de Arte de Ponce, Ponce, Puerto Rico

This seemed the obvious and only option for this POTM, as the exciting news that Leighton‘s Flaming June (1895), one of the artist’s most iconic works, is returning to London in November this year. From 4th November 2016 to 2nd April 2017, Leighton House will be showcasing the painting alongside the other works submitted to the Royal Academy that year, the last submission of his life.

The square canvas crops the scene of a sleeping beauty. Clothed in a sheer vibrant orange dress she folds herself into an armchair, which seems too small to hold her long-limbed form. I always think it is as if she has taken a nap, and will wake up with a crooked neck and a dead left arm. Despite this she is elegant, and the foreshortening is perfect. The artist did many sketches to get it right, deciding to work what was initially a study into a large oil painting. Her posture flaunts her long legs and we can see her beautiful Pre-Raphaelite face. As she is asleep we are permitted to take our time looking at her, admiring her angles, her skin seen through the chiffony dress. Her face is flushed, warm from slumber, and the scene as a whole has a sun-drenched Mediterranean kind of atmosphere.

The painting is a symphony of colour; the flame-orange of the dress, the deep red of the blanket she sits on, and the golden cloth that surrounds her like a dome. Before looking at it closely (thanks to the wonders of Wikipedia) I had thought that this was her hair, flowing over the back and arms of the chair. But it is another swathe of cloth, under which her we catch a glimpse of auburn hair. There is a decorative detail in the gold border that runs along the top of the canvas, a hint towards the Classical subjects typical of Leighton. The surrounding architectural details and her dress also suggest an Ancient civilisation, likely Greek or Roman. On the ledge behind her are red, pink, yellow, and blue flowers, and a branch of poisonous oleander – a symbol of the precariousness between the sleep of the living and that of the dead.

Flaming June is a familiar painting, perennially used for greeting cards and popular as cheap reproductions, it is an iconic image of Victorian art. But there is always more than meets the eye in paintings such as this, and to see it in the flesh will reveal it in a new light. In the context of the 1895 RA exhibition we will get a sense of what Leighton was doing at that point in his career, the themes he was exploring and how his stylistic identity was developing. Flaming June was to be among the last he ever submitted to the RA, and he died in January of the following year.

By Frederic Leighton - : notice : image, Public Domain,