Painted by the British artist Frederic Leighton around 1895, Flaming June is one of the iconic paintings of Victorian art. It depicts a single female figure asleep on a marble bench. As a sheer gossamer dress cascades over her, she floats in a pool of color. In the painting’s upper right corner is an oleander, a fragrant, but poisonous, flower. Beyond the resting figure is a seemingly endless brilliant seascape, adapted from studies Leighton had made on the Mediterranean island of Rhodes.
Flaming June is currently featured in an exhibit at the Frick Collection. An island girl, Leighton’s painting is visiting Manhattan from Puerto Rico, where she is a jewel in the collection of the Museo de Arte de Ponce. Seeing Flaming June is like a day trip Mediterranean getaway, and the exhibition, which is accompanied by a short and very readable catalog, closes on September 6th.
An air of mystery hangs over Leighton’s painting. Why is it called Flaming June? What is meant by this title? No one knows for certain. Also, the identity of the model has never been securely established. These questions only add to the enigmatic nature of this seductive picture, which tantalizes us with the yet-to-be-fulfilled prospect of narrative. Eluding our capture, Flaming June demonstrates how it is better for a painting to suggest than to disclose. Perhaps the woman is taking refuge from a hot summer afternoon, under a canopy whose decorated trim we can see across the top of the picture. Alternately, one can imagine that this is a Mediterranean night in which the moonlight on the water seems almost as bright as day. Who is this lady? What is our relationship to her? These questions are provocatively asked and coyly left unanswered.
Although Flaming June remains a highly recognizable image, often quoted in popular culture, Frederic Leighton is not as well known now as he was in his own day. One of the most successful artists of his time, Lord Leighton became a member of London’s Royal Academy in 1864 and its president in 1878. Painted just months before Leighton died, Flaming June was one of his last works and one of his best, indicating how Leighton continually aimed to elevate his art. He did not fall into on formulaic replication of his past successes. Flaming June is a culmination of the artist’s lifetime of developing subtle means of suggesting external drama and internal life.
Toward the end of a celebrated career depicting historical and literary subjects, Leighton became an advocate of the “art for art’s sake” Aesthetic Movement. This cult of beauty emphasized the work of art’s visual qualities, such as color and design, over its story-telling function. Flaming June seduces the viewer with color; the soft cadmium mango-orange of the gauzy dress is especially evocative. Softer than red, which is a forward-moving color, orange is less aggressive but still visually active.
Although she is motionless, the lines and colors of the fabrics that envelop her keep the viewer’s eye moving through the painting. Leighton employs a palette of colors that are both vivid and varying. Flaming June has many understated details that play big roles. The sandals that she has removed are piled in the lower left, forming a visual bridge into the painting, which we read from the lower left toward the upper right. In the opposite corner, the beautifully painted oleander keeps us from visually exiting the painting. The simple geometry of the marble floor is balanced with the gracefully decorated trim of the awning. The suggestion of the overhead shelter, beyond the painting’s edge, is an ingenious means by which Leighton implies that we occupy the same, semi-enclosed, space as her. The composition is constructed of concentric rings: the space, the fabrics, her legs, her arms, her facial features; the focal point is her closed eye, the curtained window to her soul. This circular design is balanced by and contained within the canvas’s square shape.
Leighton also employed his paint application to entice the viewer through the picture. In academic classism, the entire painting should be meticulously treated with a uniform degree of precision. But that is not how the eye sees or Leighton painted. While her arms and face are more carefully delineated, her dress and the fabric covering the bench are painted with more fluid brushwork. Even within her face, the ear is painted more loosely than the eye or mouth. Leighton employed the tightness and looseness of his paint application to direct and focus the viewer’s attention. The process of our reading of the painting is a journey of drawing closer and closer towards her.
The magnetism of Flaming June’s allure is, in part, that its subject and aesthetics are commensurate. Just as the picture suggests a narrative without telling a story, the painting draws the viewer into a dynamic composition of form and color that makes the lady simultaneously present and removed.
Although the figure’s pose is adapted from Michelangelo, her proportions are exaggerated. Ideally, her legs should be two head lengths from the hip to the knee and two more head lengths from the knee to the foot. Leighton has elongated her legs to at least three head lengths, or more, from the hip to the knee. If this woman were to stand up, her legs would seem grotesquely long. Her proportions have more in common with Henri Matisse’s abstractions of the figure than with Polykleitos’s (the Greek sculptor) classical canon.
The angle at which she reclines is critical to the painting’s success. This positioning of her body both draws us into the painting and separates us from her. Her shoeless right foot gently and sensually brushes against the imaginary picture plane that separates her world from ours. Her left leg forms a railing, toward which we are drawn but which we cross with discretion. Beyond this horizon, we enter a realm where our imagination meets her dream. Because, when measured against the length of her leg, her head seems small, we unconsciously read her head as more distant from us than it should be. Leighton uses the lady’s body to distance the, presumed Victorian male, viewer from her mind.
This painting is a paradox of present immediacy and deferred intimacy. The lady’s sleeping pose makes her vulnerable to the viewer. Dreaming in another world, her mind is unreachable. A personification of unattainable desire, she is simultaneously near and far away. Although we may feel that we could reach out and touch her, she remains always beyond our grasp.
Image credit: Frederic Leighton, Flaming June, ca. 1895 Oil on canvas 46 7/8 x 46 7/8 inches Museo de Arte de Ponce, The Luis A. Ferré Foundation, Inc.