Frederick Lord Leighton was a much revered Victorian artist, born in Scarborough in 1830, he travelled widely and finally settled in London, the first ever artist to be elevated to the peerage. He associated with the Pre Raphaelite brotherhood but his work is classical in style and in its subjects, more traditional than the jewel like minutely detailed work of the Pre Raphaelites. It was the kind of work which absolutely fitted the taste of the times and it brought him wealth and success. He was arguably the greatest of high Victorian painters.
His last painting, Clytie, which is part of the collection at the Leighton House Museum in London (his old home and studio) is spending three months at Scarborough Art Gallery along with some rather beautiful preparatory studies. In Ovid’s myths Clytie was a nymph who fell in love with the sun God Apollo. When she was rejected for a rival she had her buried alive but failed to win back the love of Apollo. Frozen in grief and obsessive love she stayed in one place, watching her love from afar as he crossed the sky each day, until she finally became rooted to the spot as a sunflower, still following the sun with her gaze as he passed. It’s a gift of a story for a Victorian artist, the kind of thing which his public would have lapped up, full of drama, sentiment and suffering. The painting was chosen to be placed near his coffin when he was laid in state and there is still something moving about knowing that it is his last painting.
It was a grand note to finish on. The painting is large and impressive, the work of a confident artist who knows his job and is used to working on a grand scale. As was often the case at that time the frame is an integral part of the whole effect, wide and gilded with classical pilasters on either side. This is a showy painting, an ornately presented ancient drama Queen, and it is meant to impress. We see Clytie on her knees, her head thrown back, stretching out her arms to the sun which is just out of shot (you can’t help thinking of it as a film still somehow) on the top left. She has positioned herself like a diva, her glorious red hair cascading down her back, having killed her rival. You could write her a script.
“See how much I love you! How dare you sweep across the sky and ignore me? Don’t you know that I love you. You may be able to reject me but you can’t take the joy and pain of my love away from me. I will stay here forever just to prove to you that you have made a stupid mistake. Nobody else will ever love you as much as I do. I have seen to that!”
The drama of her pose is reflected in the sky. The same russet tones that shine in her hair are used through the whole work. She may not be a flower yet, her hopes are still alive, but she is already becoming part of the landscape. The colours sweep down towards her from the light source in the top left, both a blessing from the God who she is idolising and the harsh slap in the face of rejection that she will face anew every day.
The most interesting thing about this work, for me, is the tension between this high romantic drama and the quiet steadfast portrayal of constancy in love which is also there. Her face and her gesture are calm and self possessed. She is not raging or over emotional, she has gone beyond that point. Nothing can hurt her now that she has made her choice and done her worst. She is simply there for as long as it takes, even if that turns out to be forever, because she can do nothing else. She is at peace in an attitude of worship and this gives a calm spiritual quality to the painting which exists alongside the high emotion.
There are some beautiful studies, chalk drawings, which are shown alongside the finished work. A lovely head study with the sunlight picked out on Clytie’s face in white chalk, a stunning study for her hair rippling down her back, and a nude study for the final pose used in the painting. You can see Leighton experimenting too. One of the studies has Clytie hiding her face in grief for her lost love but it doesn’t look like he spent too much time on it. I think he knew quite quickly where he wanted to go with his final major work and his instincts were absolutely right.
I am very glad that Clytie came to Scarborough for her holidays. It is good to be given the chance to have a long look at a single major work now and again rather than a whole exhibition and good that a small local gallery has been remembered and given the chance to play host to a major painting of real quality.