Frederic Leighton’s Flaming June: The Making of an Icon
The remarkable journey of Leighton's most renowned work and icon of High Victorian Art
Known as ‘The Mona Lisa of the Southern Hemisphere’, Frederic Leighton’s Flaming June (1895) now resides in the Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico. How this masterpiece arrived in the Caribbean is truly an extraordinary story, not only of a single work but of the fate of Victorian art as a whole.
An instantly recognisable icon of High Victorian Art, today, it is virtually priceless. But this was not always the case.
From Leighton’s studio to Puerto Rico
Flaming June was first unveiled to the public in Leighton’s studio on Show Sunday, 7th April 1895, as one of his six final submissions to the Royal Academy.
When at the Academy, William Luson Thomas, the owner of The Graphic weekly newspaper, was struck by the works self-contained composition and vibrant palette. The work could easily be reproduced, so he purchased Leighton's painting for just over £1,000. For the Christmas 1896 edition of The Graphic, at a shilling a copy, Flaming June hung in half-a-million parlours across Britain.
By 1906, a prosperous widow had bought Flaming June from The Graphic. The work was then loaned to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford in 1915, and in 1930 appeared again at Leighton House to mark the centenary of his birth.
And then Flaming June disappeared. What happened over the next 3 decades is shrouded in mystery.
Eventually, one day in 1962, the work was discovered by a builder in a house on Clapham Common which was being demolished. He carried Flaming June, still in the original enormous tabernacle frame, to a local Art shop, looking for a quick sale. Flaming June was sold for £60, with the frame deemed more valuable than the painting. Stripped of the tabernacle, Flaming June languished, unwanted, in the little shop on Battersea Rise.
Eventually a Mayfair barber (and part time Art dealer) bought the work. Flaming June passed hands twice before art dealer, Jeremy Maas picked it up. He bought Flaming June for less than Leighton had sold her for 70 years earlier. Maas then offered the work, unsuccessfully, to various museums.
In the heatwave of 1963, Maas hung the painting in his gallery on Clifford Street. It was here that Luis A. Ferré, first saw Flaming June and was transfixed, falling ‘in love with her at first sight’. He acquired Leighton’s masterpiece for £2,000, which was to be housed alongside other paintings, drawings, and sculptures of the Victorian era in his new Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico, designed by MoMA architect Edward Durrell Stone.
Shipped across the Atlantic to become ‘The Mona Lisa of the Southern Hemisphere’, she has since gained a super-star status that tracks the rehabilitation of Victorian Art.
In 2016-17 the iconic work once again made its way back to Leighton House (temporarily), in the landmark exhibition Flaming June: The Making of an Icon – for which you can buy the exhibition catalogue in our online Shop.
Creating Flaming June
Based upon a sketch Leighton made of a ‘chance attitude of a weary model with a supple figure’ curled up for a nap in a chair. Flaming June had, in fact, been forming in Leighton’s mind for years and first appears as a carved bas-relief motif on a marble plinth in his earlier work Summer Slumber (1894).
Through a series of studies, which remain within the Leighton House collection, we can see Leighton’s experimentation with differing poses and the evolution of the final composition
Largely completed over a matter of weeks during the winter of 1894 by an ailing Leighton - his ability to paint rapidly was a product of his consistent working practises, honed over decades. In fact, Leighton’s last years were some of the most productive of his career, and in an interview shortly before his death he remarked, ‘thank goodness my ailment has not interfered with my capacity for work, for I have never had a better appetite for it, nor I believe done better.’
Leighton succumbed to heart disease in January 1896, yet the work shows no signs of ‘weakness or wavering’. It is a dazzling exercise of line, colour, rhythm, and atmosphere.
Model and muse
Though identification of a particular model cannot be certain, two likely candidates who were Leighton’s principal models in his later years and both feature in other artworks of this time, are Dorothy Dene and Mary Lloyd.
Mary Lloyd appears to have sat for both Lachrymae and ‘Twixt Hope and Fear, which were amongst the works Leighton submitted to the Royal Academy in 1895, and Dorothy Dene is identified as the sitter for Clytie (1895-6) by Leighton’s neighbour and biographer, Emilie Russell Barrington.
An icon of popular culture
Today, Flaming June has become a familiar motif in popular culture. From her first reproduction in The Graphic in 1896, to Jessica Chastain’s Vogue cover of 2013, the ethereal figure has become the source of inspiration for countless imitations and reproductions.