One of the problems attending Frederic Leighton’s Flaming June—now on loan to the Frick Collection from the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico—is the hype. The voluminous promotional material provided by the Frick describes it once too often as “iconic,” a term that needs to be permanently retired in reference to familiar images. Flaming June is a good painting and a conversation piece, the inspiration for a garden party at the Frick, at which many of the guests wore requisite shades of saffron.
The pendulum swings, sometimes too far. Flaming June was a success for Leighton, a longtime president of the Royal Academy, who died a few months after finishing the painting. The popularity of Victorian era art evaporated, and June elicited little excitement when it was put on the market in the early 1960s. Luis A. Ferré, the founder of the Museo de Arte de Ponce, was smitten with the painting, and purchased it for a song. By the early 80s, the backlash had begun in earnest: students in life classes were pinning post cards of academic paintings to their easels, and Flaming June was on the cover of Robert Rosenblum’s survey of nineteenth-century art. Now she’s nestled amid Whistler’s great portraits. The resurrection of tepid sensibility is complete.
With its glossed-up neoclassicism, I was anticipating a chance to eviscerate the painting, in the manner of Tom Lubbock’s piece from 2008. The thing is, it’s neither as good as all the fuss, nor bad as all that. The figure’s contortions, inspired by Michelangelo, lack the Florentine’s powerful energy. More than that, Leighton couldn’t draw as trenchantly as Whistler—compare the face of the idealized woman in Flaming June with that of Symphony in Flesh Color and Pink: Portrait of Mrs. Frances Leyland. At a glance, June‘s a nice fit with Whistler’s standing figures, and the attendant scholarship pushes the art for art’s sake aesthetic as the connective thread. But she’s very nearly a one-off, Leighton’s single such triumph in a genre that was Whistler’s playground. Moreover, Whistler was, for all his refined aestheticism, interested in very real people, voluptuous women, pretentious dandies, and robber barons. He made art from subjects that burdened Sargent with the imperative to flatter.
Lubbock was right when he characterized Flaming June as “middle of the road.” Its eroticism safely removed to an ancient Greek setting, the painting is too tasteful to catch fire. Whistler’s fully clad portrait of Lady Meux exudes more sexual energy.
Insofar as most of the scholarship concentrates on the figure as femme fatale and the significance of the dress’s color—it is, for the record, more conservative peach than blazing orange—we miss the most interesting aspect of the canvas, the passages of pure painting which answer the call of art for art’s sake. Flaming June‘s sensual tension derives less from the bland figure than its intricate rhythms of excess drapery (Susan Grace Galassi, the Frick’s Senior Curator, does devote attention to this in her catalogue essay, mostly in relation to Leighton’s preliminary drawings). Leighton’s last burst of tactile eloquence is dispersed in details of cloth. The apricot, carmine, and sienna fabrics are composed of subtly attuned color changes. Abundant swirls of gossamer material, bunched up around the woman’s legs in liquid strokes, are where Leighton left his heart.
The story goes that Leighton once made the mistake of asking Whistler why he never finished his paintings. The respondent, not one to ignore a high soft lob, asked Leighton why he even started his. The exchange was telling: Leighton was preoccupied with superficial finish that took classical prototypes as inspiration; Whistler was engaged in finding an artful response to modern life. The two may have nominally shared an aesthetic, but their visions were irreconcilably at odds.
The contest wasn’t close. Game, set, match, Whistler.
Leighton’s Flaming June is on view in the Oval Room of the Frick Collection through September 6, 2015.