Pulsating Pigments

The pigments pulsate, drawing the viewer ever closer. One imagines the gold streak bridging the upper portion of the canvas to be the result of glare or misplaced lighting. However, with each step toward Flaming June, which can be first seen when entering the atrium, one is reassured that the light is in fact the result of carefully layered and juxtaposed pigments. Painted by Frederic Leighton in 1895, the painting, which is currently on exhibit at the Frick Collection, is somewhat of an enigma. The artist left no explanation of the vague title or indication of whether the voluptuous figure enveloped in a luminous orange haze is a personification of the month June or a historically accurate figure. However, the exact identification of the figure has little bearing on how a viewer analyses the work.

The protagonist is generously draped in a fiery orange garment that is both transparent and reflective. Caressing her own arm while nestling into her left thigh, June is depicted by Leighton as a modernized classical beauty. The environment of sensuous opulence is further enhanced by her tumbling red hair that intertwines with the throw on which she sleeps. While shown in a deep restless sleep, June throbs with energy. Juxtaposed with flanking Whistler portraits from the Frick’s permanent collection, Leighton’s Flaming June is solid whereas the former’s sitters appear flat, lacking the depth necessary for realistic depictions.

While the works themselves are strikingly different, both artists were proponents of aestheticism and sought to champion formal artistic values over political themes in their works. Whistler’s mastery of line is evident in his portraits; he employed subtle gradations of color to craft precise details. However, I find Whistler’s  portraits to lack the fresh vivacity of life. His tranquil style is more fitting for seascapes, a subject matter which he paints profusely.  Deviating from Whistler’s austere canvases, Leighton’s work Flaming June lavishly draws upon the classical age of Greco-Roman beauty. Exquisitely rendered, the protagonist’s sculpturesque form encapsulates the grandeur of beauty past, while her restlessness energy hints at the potential artistic awakening to come. It is this dual figuration which I find bewitching.


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