36
36

PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED PRIVATE COLLECTION

Frederic, Lord Leighton, P.R.A.
BRITISH
VENUS DISROBING FOR THE BATH
Estimate
1,200,0001,500,000
LOT SOLD. 1,874,500 USD
JUMP TO LOT
36

PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED PRIVATE COLLECTION

Frederic, Lord Leighton, P.R.A.
BRITISH
VENUS DISROBING FOR THE BATH
Estimate
1,200,0001,500,000
LOT SOLD. 1,874,500 USD
JUMP TO LOT

Details & Cataloguing

19th Century European Art including Important British Paintings

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New York

Frederic, Lord Leighton, P.R.A.
1830-1896
BRITISH
VENUS DISROBING FOR THE BATH

Provenance

Frederick Richards Leyland (and sold, his sale: Christie's, London, March 9, 1872, lot 71)
Vokins (acquired at the above sale)
Thomas Eustace Smith (Sir Alexander Henderson, later 1st Baron Faringdon (and sold, his sale: Sotheby's, London, June 13, 1934, lot 116)
Sampson (acquired at the above sale)
John Avery
J.S. Maas & Co., London
Sale: Sotheby's, Belgravia, March 9, 1976, lot 47, illustrated
Private Collector (acquired at the above sale)
Private Collection (acquired in 1978)
Thence by descent

Exhibited

London, Royal Academy, 1867, no. 489
London, Royal Academy, Winter Exhibition, 1897, no. 56

Literature

"The Royal Academy," The Light Blue: A Cambridge University Magazine, Cambridge, 1867, vol. II, p. 328
"The Royal Academy and Other Exhibitions," Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, July-December 1867, vol. 102, p. 79
Edmund Hodgson Yates, Celebrities at Home, London, 1878, p. 100
George H. Shepherd, A Short History of the British School of Painting, London, 1881, p. 116
Mrs. A. Lang, "Sir Frederic Leighton, Member of the Royal Academy," Art Annual, 1884-85, p. 12
Ernest Rhys,  Sir Frederic Leighton Bart., P.R.A., An Illustrated Chronicle, London, 1895, pp. xviii, 15, 68, illustrated 14c
Clara Erskine Clement Waters and Laurence Hutton, Artists of the Nineteenth Century and their Works: A Handbook Containing Two Thousand and Fifty Biographical Sketches, Boston, 1879, vol. II, p. 54
Mary Knight Potter, Love in Art, Boston, 1898, p. 152
William Cosmo Monkhouse, British Contemporary Artists, New York, 1899, p. 111
Ernest Rhys, Frederic Lord Leighton: Late President of the Royal Academy of Arts, An Illustrated Record of his Life and Work, London, 1900, pp. 25, 110, 124, illustrated p. 24 
George Charles Williamson, Frederic, Lord Leighton, London, 1902,  p. 30
Alice Corkran, Frederic Leighton, London, 1904, p. 185
Richard Muther, The History of Modern Painting, London, 1903, vol. III, p. 344
Edgcumbe Staley, Lord Leighton of Stretton, P.R.A., New York, 1906, p. 73
A. Lys Baldry, Leighton, London, 1908
Mrs. Russell Barrington, The Life, Letters and Work of Frederic Leighton, Boston, 1908, vol. II, pp. 125, 384, 386
"Sir Frederick Leighton," Teacher's Magazine, October 1913, p. 53
Jeremy Maas, Victorian Painters, New York, 1969, p. 181
Leonée Ormond and Richard Ormond, Lord Leighton, New Haven and London, 1975, pp. 34, 72, 87-8, 119, 157-6, no. 124, illustrated pl. III
Victorian High Renaissance, exh. cat., Minneapolis, 1978, p. 109
Christopher Wood, Olympian Dreamers, Victorian Classical Painters, 1860-1914, London, 1983, p. 50, illustrated p. 49, no. 5
Joseph A. Kestner, Mythology and Misogyny, The Social Discourse of Nineteenth-Century British Classical Subject Painting, Madison, Wisconsin, 1989, pp. 151-2, 161, 162
Christopher Newall, The Art of Lord Leighton, New York, 1990, pp. 57, 59, illustrated no. 33
Richard Jenkyns, Dignity and Decadence, Victorian Art and the Classical Inheritance, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1992, p. 227, illustrated p. 228, no. 147
Russell Ash, Lord Leighton, London, 1995, n.p., illustrated 
Stephen Jones, Christopher Newall, Leonée Ormond, Richard Ormond and Benedict Read, Frederic, Lord Leighton, exh. cat., New York, 1996, pp. 27-8, illustrated p. 28
Dianne Sachko Macleod, Art and the Victorian Middle Class, Money and the Making of Cultural Identity, Cambridge, 1998, p. 293
Alison Smith,"Nature Transformed:  Leighton, the Nude and the Model," in Frederic Leighton: Antiquity Renaissance Modernity, Tim Barringer and Elizabeth Prettejohn, eds., New Haven and London, 1999, p. 22, illustrated pl. V
Christopher Wood, Victorian Painting, Boston, 1999, p. 188, illustrated p. 183
Alison Smith, ed., Exposed, The Victorian Nude, exh. cat., London, 2001, pp. 88, 102, illustrated fig. 20
Elizabeth Prettejohn, Art for Art's Sake, Aestheticism in Victorian Painting, New Haven and London, 2007, pp. 139-41, illustrated p. 139, no. 69
Elizabeth Prettejohn, "The Classicism of Frederic Leighton," in Frederic Lord Leighton 1830-1896, Painter and Sculptor of the Victorian Age, Margot Th. Brandlhuber and Michael Buhrs, eds., exh. cat., Munich, 2009, p. 46-7, illustrated p. 47, no. 27

Catalogue Note

Although is difficult to pinpoint his exact motivation, Leighton turned towards classical subjects in the 1860s—as did many of his contemporaries, whose interest in classicism arose aesthetic, rather than moral, concerns (Ormond, Lord Leighton, p. 86).  This trend was inspired in part by recent archaeological explorations that had uncovered a wealth of architecture and statuary from sites in Greece and Asia Minor.  In particular, the British Museum acquired an impressive list of finds, and built great rooms to hold collections and crowds of visitors (Rosemary Barrow, "Drapery, Sculpture and the Praxitelean Ideal," in Frederick Leighton, 1999, p. 50).  Such items shed new light on the artistic sophistication of the ancient Greeks, particularly in their delicate modeling of the human form. The surge of interest in Hellenic culture held a strong sway over Victorian painters eager for new inspiration. Indeed, the poet and theorist Matthew Arnold extolled that "a great human action of a thousand years ago is more interesting than a smaller action of to-day" (Poems, 1853, preface in The Poems of Matthew Arnold, ed. K. Allot, 1965, as quoted in Ormond, Lord Leighton, p. 85).  While earlier neo-classical artists attempted to recreate the ancient world, often with moral or political allusions, the appeal of the genre to artists like Leighton was in its possibilities for aesthetic expression.  In particular Leighton thought masterworks of antiquity were created by "peoples filled with a love of beauty and achieving the highest excellence in its embodiment" (as quoted in Barrow, p. 49).  Dissatisfied with the limitations of historical or genre subjects, Leighton believed classical subjects afforded the opportunity to paint simple yet monumental figures like the remarkable Venus Disrobing for the Bath, the first of his important nudes, which challenged prevailing notions of Victorian propriety in favor of unadulterated beauty.

Among five classical works Leighton exhibited in 1867, nothing as dramatic or blatantly nude as Venus Disrobing for the Bath had been seen at the Royal Academy for decades (Prettejohn, Art for Art's Sake, p. 139). Framed by Doric columns with a background of azure sea and sky touched by the crimson setting sun, Venus' downward gaze and expanse of exposed, cool-toned skin invites observation as she steps out of a golden sandal while her robe, tangled in upraised arm, further emphasizes the vulnerable moment of undress. Leighton's academic training is evident in the skillfully drawn body, its weighty musculature stressed by the traditional contrapposto pose of the Italian Renaissance painters (Leighton may have used Leonardo da Vinci's Leda and the Swan as inspiration for the present work) which he further complicates with the figure's bending, twisted torso and downward reaching arm (Smith, "Nature Transformed," p. 22; Ormond, Lord Leighton, p. 88).  Venus is surrounded by the traditional visual clues to her mythological persona, such as the blooming rose bush, fluttering doves, and the ocean of her birth--yet it lacks the innocent companion of a Cupid or narrative context to legitimize her nudity, in the manner of Leighton's contemporaries like William Etty or William Edward Frost (Prettejohn, Art for Art's Sake, p. 139; Smith, "Nature Transformed," p. 23).  Rather, in its close attention to aesthetic sensibilities, Venus Disrobing is formed of simple geometries and large blocks of color, allowing for a pure appreciation of the painted form, both an impassive sculpture and serene object of voyeuristic attention. Such an effect was, as the Art Journal observed, "a little startling now-a-days" as the Venus is "not so much 'disrobing' as undressed (as quoted in Kestner, p. 151).  Yet critics were (somewhat surprisingly) quick to defend the controversial painting, declaring that "nakedness is not the leading characteristic of the figure" and that "A figure like this, which braves prevailing prejudices, not to say principles, can only be justified by success....His picture is eminently chaste... In this reading of the character Mr. Leighton, instead of adopting corrupt Roman notions of respecting Venus... has wisely reverted to the Greek ideal of Aphrodite, a goddess worshipped... It is just in proportion as such super sensuous qualities are attained, that a figure of Venus can be justified in a modern exhibition" (as quoted in Wood, Victorian Painting, p. 188; Kesnter, p. 151). 

The defense of Venus Disrobing suggests the prestige and popularity of paintings (even those of nudes) that reinterpreted Greek myths or Classical artifacts for a contemporary audience. While it is unkown if Leighton took direct inspiration from a specific sculpture, Venus' pose references the Roman bronze and marble copies of Venus Loosening her Sandal and the Venus de Medici well known to the public (fig 1.). Ultimately, Venus Disrobing was not intended as a didactic copy of specific antique sculpture nor a narrative, character-driven exercise; instead, it reveals the artist's decision to evoke classical models while suggesting a new experimentation with painterly expression. The blankness of Leighton's Venus, her eyes turned downward, further masked by heavy shadow, tempers the suggestive quality of her nudity. This Venus does not invite speculation of her inner thoughts, nor does she acknowledge the viewer's presence (Smith, Exposed, p. 23, Prettejohn, Art for Art's Sake, pp.140-1). Despite the large composition, Leighton tightly frames Venus, creating a devotional, sanctuary-like space with columns and large pedestal (which perhaps supports a graceful,figure sculpture suggested by the cross-legged form at the top left of the canvas) at each side and stone step and vine covered arch at top and bottom. As  F. G. Stephens explained "of course, as it was in antiquity, the painter merely took the name of 'Venus' as the aptest designation for a feminine type of whatever was graceful, exalted, amorous, and voluptuous, and did not insist upon the goddess-ship of his sumptuous and naked lady (Rhys, p. xxxi). Far removed from the dramas of mythological scene as well as the costume dramas or genre scenes so prevalent in nineteenth century painting, Leighton described his art process of the 1860s and 1870s as his "growth from multiplicity to simplicity," using classical traditions to experiment with "modern" thoughts and feelings (as quoted in Ormond, Lord Leighton, p. 85). And in so doing, as Staley suggested, the artist exemplified "the union of two ideas---ideal Greek without antique conventions and the energies of modern impulse and passion.  [Venus Disrobing] is a presentation of Leighton's sense of eclectic beauty in its greatest perfection (Staley, p. 73)."

From the late 1860s onward, nudes were an important part of Leighton's oeuvre, with Venus Disrobing a portender of the art world's appreciation of the body alone as a beautiful object (fig. 2, Prettejohn, Art for Art's Sake, p. 140).  Soon after its sensational debut at the Royal Academy, Venus Disrobing entered the collection of Liverpool shipping magnate Frederick Leyland, known for his acquisition of some of the most controversial art of the 1860s, including Burne-Jones' scandalous Phyllis and Demophoön and Albert Moore's A Venus. From Leyland's sale in 1871, Thomas Eustace Smith, a wealthy shipbuilder and Member of Parliament, acquired Venus Disrobing.  Smith had a particularly unique connection to the work: his wife Eustacia, claimed to have posed for the painting, but insisted she modeled only for Venus' bare feet. Venus Disrobing drew fresh scandal upon Julian Hawthorne's (son of American writer Nathanial) published account of a party at the Smith's residence, where the painting hung prominently in the drawing room--implying a bold allegory (however unfairly) to Eustacia's own bohemian sensibilities and well-known extramarital affairs (Macleod, p. 293, Ormond, Lord Leighton, p. 72).

19th Century European Art including Important British Paintings

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New York