Leighton’s Drawings and the Classical World

‘Classical’, ‘Hellenising’ and ‘neoclassical’ are among the words most frequently used to describe the art of Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830–1896).[1] A brief exploration of the Leighton Drawings Collection will leave little doubt as to why the British painter’s art so often calls ancient Greece and Rome to mind. Figures can be found labelled in Greek (LHO/D/0870), [2] holding what appear to be ancient vases (LHO/D/0665), and—most typically of Leighton—swathed in flowing white drapery evocative of the era.

Much of Leighton’s art reflects an interest in the classical world, from bodies and buildings that echo ancient models, to the historical and mythological subjects of paintings such as The Vestal and Perseus and Andromeda. Defining how his work absorbs and interprets classical influence, however, is more complicated.

It is important to keep in mind that Victorian students, artists and intellectuals routinely encountered classical art and knowledge. [3] Leighton’s lifetime coincided with the last gasps of a long-held Western idea that ancient Greek sculptures (and the Roman works presumed to ‘copy’ them) represented the highest achievement in the history of art.[4] Drawing from museum objects or plaster cast reproductions was standard artistic training; interest in and acknowledgement of classical predecessors was commonplace.

This short introduction comments on a few facets of Leighton’s complex relationship with ‘classicism’ that are especially visible in the Drawings Collection, and recommends further reading. Classical influence on Leighton’s work is an expansive topic and a comprehensive overview would be difficult.[5] Here I will only treat Leighton’s melding of classical and other influences, his use of ancient sculptures as models and the transformative approach to both the classical past and ancient art in his work.

‘The Classical Painter’?

Narratives of Leighton’s artistic development describe a young painter initially drawn to medievalism, whose interest in 1866 shifted to the classical world. According to such accounts, after a first trip to Greece in 1867, he became Leighton, ‘The Classical Painter’.[6] However, as early as 1856, The Triumph of Music, a painting of Orpheus and Eurydice, demonstrated interest in Greek mythology. Additionally, even after 1867 Leighton’s classical enthusiasm never excluded other subjects and styles. Throughout his career, the artist illustrated biblical scenes (LHO/D/0845) and took inspiration from Egypt and the Middle East (LHO/D/0444). The interpretations of post-classical artists, from the Italian Renaissance to the German Nazarene School and Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, also played a large part in shaping Leighton’s understanding of ancient art and classical style.[7]

The flexibility of Leighton's relationship to the classical world is nicely illustrated by at least one classicising title that appears to have been an afterthought. Greek Girl Dancing (1867) was first exhibited under the title Spanish Dancing-girl: Cadiz in the Olden Times. The nineteenth-century architect Heathercote Statham comments, ‘one would have thought that there was all the difference in the world between a Greek girl and a Spanish girl, except that both would probably be beautiful in their way; but here the same figure seems to have been regarded as equally applicable to either; in fact, it was neither Spanish nor Greek essentially, but an abstract figure of a girl.’[8] The Greek and Roman past, though crucial to Leighton’s development, was clearly only one influence among many.

Ancient Sculptures as Models

From time to time, scholars have identified echoes of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures in Leighton’s paintings. To an eye familiar with ancient art, the younger figure in Daedalus and Icarus, exhibited in 1868, is reminiscent of the Apollo Belvedere in the Vatican Museums; Elijah’s pose in Elijah in the Wilderness (c. 1877) suggests the Barberini Faun in Munich’s Glyptothek. Both the Apollo Belvedere and the Barberini Faun were popular, widely-replicated statues in Victorian Britain, and Leighton is known to have made detailed drawings of artworks on occasion (LHO/D/0941).[9]

Studies for both Daedalus and Icarus and Elijah in the Wilderness demonstrate conclusively, however, that while he may have been mindful of classical sculpture when positioning his models,[10] Leighton most certainly used living bodies and actual draperies as his immediate source.

Of Daedalus and Icarus, Charles Newall comments, ‘the torso and head [of Icarus], and particularly the raised arm and clenched fist, suggest the poses of the statues of Castor and Pollux in the Piazza del Quirinale in Rome. Another likely source is the Apollo Belvedere in the Vatican.’[11] Yet on inspection of the Drawings Collection, this raised right arm does not appear to have always been an integral part of Leighton’s conception of Icarus.

Some drawings, for example, (LHO/D/0497), (DP/RA/04/704) and (DP/RA/06/1782), show the right arm of the winged Icarus hanging over the shoulders of the crouching Daedalus. This pose with lowered arms did not prevail. Looking at other drawings, we can see Icarus’s emphatic salute take shape. The arm has been studied in (LHO/D/0499) and incorporated into the figure in (LHO/D/0498).

The importance of the malleability of the model’s body for Leighton’s draughtsmanship is equally apparent in studies for Elijah in the Wilderness. The model for Elijah affects very different positions in (LHO/D/0585), (LHO/D/0586), (LHO/D/0587) and (LHO/D/0588). While the pose ultimately chosen by Leighton is indeed reminiscent of the Barberini Faun, we are not left with any evidence that Leighton’s choice was guided by study or memory of the Faun.

Many aspects of Leighton’s method—for instance, that the artist began his projects by studying the nude body, whether or not the final figure would be clothed[12]—are conspicuous in the Drawings Collection.[13] How ancient artworks figured into Leighton’s artistic process, however, is less obvious. Life studies seem an intermediate step, at the very least, between the impact of any ancient artwork and Leighton’s finished paintings.

This allegiance to life drawing, and especially from the nude, may have its roots in Leighton’s unusual artistic training. Unlike many of his British contemporaries, who would have studied abroad a year or two at most, Leighton spent much of his boyhood and adolescence in continental Europe.[14] Students at the Royal Academy Schools in London spent years drawing from the antique, followed by gradual movement into drawing from the head and the draped model. In contrast, the European education Leighton received included drawing from the nude almost from the beginning. Ever after, he demonstrated a preference for live models able to pose in response to the artist’s requests—not bodies in immovable stone.

The ancient ‘source’, then, may often be in the eye of the beholder.[15] In fact, to Stephen Jones, Elijah appears explicitly Michelangelesque. Jones’s suggestion that Leighton’s borrowing from Michelangelo might often have been ‘subliminal’ (rather than intentionally reproductive) seems as applicable to classical prototypes as it is to Renaissance ones.[16] It is tempting to conclude with Barringer and Prettejohn that ‘source-spotting (an absorbing if ultimately unrewarding pastime for Leighton scholars) becomes counter-productive’.[17]

Adapting the Antique

It was not the aim of Leighton’s art to be historically precise, or to represent classical literature, myth or art with perfect accuracy.[18] Ian Jenkins comments, with reference to the treatment of ancient vases in Leighton’s Captive Andromache, ‘he felt no compulsion to remain true to the original.’[19] After Leighton’s death, M. H. Spielmann remarked, ‘his knowledge of classical antiquity was hardly less than that of Mr. Alma-Tadema; but he had long laid it aside as an aid to painting . . . He held that an anachronism in a work not definitely and deliberately historical and illustrative is no fault when it does not outrage the eye or outrage the sense by its impropriety.’[20] In fact, in The Triumph of Music, Orpheus plays not a lyre, but a modern violin.

Even in cases where the illustration of a specific classical artwork seems undeniable, we should be wary of discounting Leighton’s transformative approach to ancient models. For instance, the white statue of a woman with a deer, behind the procession at the centre of Leighton’s The Syracusan Bride, has been cited as a ‘precise classical reference’ to the Diana of Versailles, an ancient sculpture in the Louvre.[21] However, if we compare the Diana to either Leighton’s painting or an earlier composition (preparatory drawing), we see that the reference is far from precise.

Examine Leighton’s ‘Diana’, circled in green on the composition below (LHO/D/0488).[22] The legs of the deer (indicated by blue arrows) are outstretched. Turning to the photograph of the Diana of Versailles, we notice that the legs of the marble deer, in contrast, are bent. Additionally, the goddess’ drapery does not extend past her thighs in the ancient version, while on Leighton’s figure the fabric (indicated by a red arrow) hangs down past her knees at the back.

A final example from the Leighton Drawings Collection illustrates particularly well the range of influences at play in Leighton’s ‘classicising’. This drawing (DP/HMA/00.239) of a female bust, with its ragged neck, and striking resemblance to the head of the Venus de Medici, may at first evoke the copying of fragmentary ancient sculpture.

The features of the face, however, have been softened. The tendrils of hair are slightly mussed. This is neither woman, nor sculpture, but something in between, conceived by Leighton. With this eclectic study, Leighton demonstrates the compatibility of sculpture and life as dual sources for his figures.[23] Marden Fitzpatrick Nichols

Suggested Further Reading and Works Cited

  • Asleson, Robyn. 1999. On Translating Homer: Prehistory and the Limits of Classicism. In Barringer, Tim and Elizabeth Prettejohn (eds). Frederic Leighton: Antiquity Renaissance Modernity. London: Yale University Press, 67–86.
  • Arscott, Caroline. 1999. The Artist as Artificer. In Barringer, Tim and Elizabeth Prettejohn (eds). Frederic Leighton: Antiquity Renaissance Modernity. London: Yale University Press, 3–18.
  • Barringer, Tim and Elizabeth Prettejohn (eds). 1999. Frederic Leighton: Antiquity Renaissance Modernity. London: Yale University Press.
  • Barrington, Mrs. Russell. 1906. Life, Letters and Work of Frederic Leighton. London: G. Allen.
  • Barrow, Rosemary. 1999. Drapery, Sculpture and the Praxitelean Ideal. In Barringer, Tim and Elizabeth Prettejohn (eds). Frederic Leighton: Antiquity Renaissance Modernity. London: Yale University Press, 49–66.
  • Haskell, Francis and Nicholas Penny. 1981. Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture 1500–1900. London: Yale University Press.
  • Jenkins, Ian. 1983. Frederic Lord Leighton and Greek vases. The Burlington Magazine 125, 597–605.
  • Jones, Stephen, et al. 1996. Frederic, Lord Leighton: Eminent Victorian Artist. New York: H.N. Abrams.
  • Newall, Christopher. 1990. The Art of Lord Leighton. London: Phaidon.
  • Ormond, Leonée and Richard. 1975. Lord Leighton. London: Yale University Press.
  • Prettejohn, Elizabeth. 1999. Aestheticising History Painting. In Barringer, Tim and Elizabeth Prettejohn (eds). Frederic Leighton: Antiquity Renaissance Modernity. London: Yale University Press, 89–110.
  • Settis, Salvatore. 2006. The Future of the ‘Classical’. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Smith, Alison. 2001. The Classical Nude. In Exposed: The Victorian Nude. London: Tate Publishing, 86–127.
  • Smith, Alison. 1999. Nature Transformed: Leighton, the Nude and the Model. In Barringer, Tim and Elizabeth Prettejohn (eds). Frederic Leighton: Antiquity Renaissance Modernity. London: Yale University Press, 19–48.
  • Statham, H. Heathcote. 1897. Leighton and Watts: Two Ideals in Art. Fortnightly Review O.S. 67, 303–310.
  • Treuherz, Julian. 1993. Victorian Painting. London: Thames and Hudson.


1. In this essay, I will not be examining the relevance of these terms to Leighton’s work, but rather making a few general points about the evocation of ancient Greece and Rome in the artist’s drawings. For an account of the ambivalence and diversity of the word ‘classical’, see Settis (2006). More thorough introductions to the various kinds of ‘classicism’ and ‘neoclassicism’ in Leighton’s art can be found in Ormond (1975), 83–94 and Newall (1990), 56 ff. back

2. All references to drawings within the text use the numbers catalogued on the Lord Leighton Drawings website: <https://www.rbkc.gov.uk/leightonhousemuseum/drawings/>. Images of ancient sculpture are my own photographs of nineteenth-century plaster cast reproductions in the Museum of Classical Archaeology, University of Cambridge. back

3. On Leighton’s education, see Ormond (1975), 3 ff. back

4. Haskell and Penny (1981) remains the most helpful introduction to this topic. back

5. For instance, aspects of Leighton’s relationship to classical art are discussed by Arscott (1999); Smith (1999); Barrow (1999); Asleson (1999); and Jenkins (1983). back

6.‘Between Styles’ and ‘The Classical Painter’ are chapter titles in Ormond (1975). See also Newall (1990), 24. The artist’s own commentary on his increasing classicism is cited in Ormond (1975), 84–85; Newall (1990), 56. back

7. Treuherz (1993), 131 ff. provides a good introduction to the artistic climate and the range of influences on Leighton’s painting. Ormond (1975), 10–14 and Newall (1999), 9–11 discuss early influences. Leighton’s relationship with the Pre-Raphaelites is treated by Newall (1990), 28–29. See also the relevant chapters in Barringer and Prettejohn (1999). back

8. Statham (1897), 306. back

9. Jenkins (1983) reproduces two pages of studies (c. 1872) of objects in the British Museum from Leighton’s sketchbook XV. A Venetian Well-head (1852) exemplifies Leighton’s early mastery of accurate drawing. back

10. Leighton’s studio-house included facilities for the entrance, dressing or undressing, posing and exit of models. Reproductions of ancient artwork were likewise close at hand. Leighton’s library was rich in volumes on classical art and archaeology. In the studio were plaster casts replicas of classical sculpture, including some of the Parthenon’s pedimental figures and frieze. back

11. Newall (1990), 65. back

12. Leighton’s idiosyncratic, but still highly methodical, artistic process is one of the most researched aspects of his work, e.g. Smith (1999), 21–22: ‘Although a preliminary study of the nude for finished paintings was practised in England (by artists as diverse as Watts and Holman Hunt), Leighton was unique in adopting such a systematic procedure, a discipline founded on Continental academic traditions, not the direct methods favoured by Etty, Mulready and the British school generally.’ In the 1860s, Leighton’s portrayal of the female nude body in his finished paintings was a potential impropriety, neutralised by the veil of classicism. See Smith (1999); Smith (2001), 88; Newall (1990), 57–59. back

13. The Drawings Collection is not a complete record of Leighton’s drawings, and therefore any conclusions offered here must be speculative to some degree. Further insight into Leighton’s working process may be found in Barrington’s two-volume Life, Letters and Work of Frederic Leighton of 1906. back

14. Newall (1990), 9. back

15. Rosemary Barrow, while adding the Praxitelean Dresden Satyr to the litany of classical references for Leighton’s Icarus, also cautions against ascribing such prototypes, noting that Hermes of Praxiteles and Marathon Boy, both discovered well after 1869, ‘uncannily resemble the Leighton figure’. Barrow (1999), 59. back

16. Jones (1996), 37–39. back

17. Barringer and Prettejohn (1999), xxiii. back

18. See especially Asleson (1999). Allusions to classical literature and mythology, such as the few obscure lines of Theocritus’ Idylls which inspired The Syracusan Bride, have been deemed more of an excuse for classical pomp and circumstance than an attempt at illustrating a learned reference. Prettejohn (1999), 95 ff. The Daphnephoria is ‘less a history painting than a decorative machine’. Newall (1990), 89. back

19. Jenkins (1983), 598. He concludes, ‘Leighton was quite unconcerned with archaeological accuracy, freely adapting the vase-paintings he used and often working from secondary sources rather than originals. His studies for the painting further illuminate his methods: working in a studio without immediate access to models for his antique vases the artist posed his living models with whatever was to hand among the bric-à-brac of Leighton House.’ Jenkins (1983), 601. back

20. Quoted in Jenkins (1983), 605 from Magazine of Art 8 (1896), 208. back

21. Ormond (1975), 87. I thank Philippa Martin for suggesting this example. The representation of the Parthenon frieze in his Uffizi Self-Portrait is perhaps the most accurate depiction of a classical work in Leighton’s paintings. back

22. The green circle and arrows on the composition are my additions. back

23. Softening of sculptural features to suggest animation can also be seen in Leighton’s study of the bust of Machiavelli (LHO/D/0941) noted above. back

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