Lot 10
  • 10

Frederic, Lord Leighton, P.R.A., R.W.S

300,000 - 400,000 USD
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  • The Star of Bethlehem (One of the Magi, from the Terrace of his House, stands looking at the Star in the East. The lower part of the picture indicates a revel, which he may be supposed to have just left)
  • oil on canvas
  • 61 by 23 3/4 in.
  • 154.9 by 59.1 cm


Probably, Sale: Christie's, London, 1862
T. B. Holmes, 1897
Mrs. M. de Q. Quincey (and sold, Christie's, London, October 16, 1981, lot 30, illustrated)
Sale: Christie's, London, June 11, 1993, lot 107, illustrated
Acquired at the above sale


London, Royal Academy, 1862, no. 217
Liverpool, Autumn Exhibition, 1862, no. 152
London, Royal Academy, Exhibition of the Works by the late Lord Leighton of Stretton, P. R. A., 1897, no. 28
London, Royal Academy, Frederic Leighton 1830-1896, February 15-April 21, 1996, no. 22


Athenaeum, no. 1801, May 3, 1862, p. 602
Art Journal, 1862, p. 130
Ernest Rhys, Sir Frederic Leighton, London, 1895, p. 66
Alice Corkran, Frederic Leighton, n.p. 1904, p, 48, 102, 181, 185, 199
Mrs. Russell Barrington, The Life, Letters and Work of Frederic Leighton, New York, 1906, vol. II, pp. 86-8, 107, 383
Leonée and Richard Ormand, Lord Leighton, London, 1975, p. 55, 154, no. 79
Christopher Newall, The Art of Lord Leighton, Oxford, 1990, p. 36, 38
Allen Staley, The New Painting of the 1860s, Between the Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetic Movement, New Haven and London, 2011, p. 238


The following condition report was kindly provided by Simon Parkes Art Conservation, Inc.: This important work is in its original frame and is in extremely good condition. The canvas has an old glue lining, but the stretcher seems to be original. There are a few isolated retouches in the sky on the left side of the figure. Above the figure’s head there is one retouch. There is no damage or restoration in the remainder of the figure or in the decorative element beneath the figure. The paint layer may be slightly dirty, but the complexity of Leighton’s technique and the wonderful condition certainly discourages one from any aggressive restoration. The retouches in the sky on the left are slightly discolored now and should be reexamined.
"This lot is offered for sale subject to Sotheby's Conditions of Business, which are available on request and printed in Sotheby's sale catalogues. The independent reports contained in this document are provided for prospective bidders' information only and without warranty by Sotheby's or the Seller."

Catalogue Note

Critics found Leighton’s work of the 1860s difficult to define — confused by the artist’s transition from the straightforward literary and historical subjects of the 1850s to more classically inspired works as he explored new aesthetics. Crossing the divide of this period were Leighton’s group of Biblical compositions, almost exclusively taken from the Old Testament — fueled more by public interest than Leighton's own religious conviction (he was likely agnostic), although his study with the German Nazarene painters certainly provided him with the ideal artistic training for such subjects. Exhibited at the Royal Academy of 1862, The Star of Bethlehem followed the artist’s execution of 1858’s Samson and Delilah  and Gehazi Dismissed by the Prophet Elisha (both unlocated) (Ormond p. 55).  While informed by a biblical narrative, the present work is not a direct illustration of a specific gospel. Without the aid of the explanatory sentence included in the Royal Exhibition catalogue (and still clearly inscribed on the original frame’s plaque), the swarthy skinned, bearded figure wearing robes built of sculptural folds could be taken for a number of men of the Bible. Indeed, the figure resembles Leighton’s model for the imposing Elijah, who discovers the crime of Jezebel and Ahab (circa 1862-3, Scarborough Borough Council) and the eponymous wise king of David (1865, Cleveland Museum of Art) (Frederic, Lord Leighton, p. 124).  This ambiguity, as a critic for the Art Journal explained, allows The Star of Bethlehem to be “one of those felicitous conceptions which… may have happened, and though there is no authority that it did, yet it is in the spirit of the poetry of the gospel” (The Art Journal, June 1, 1862, p. 130). The review echoed the artist’s own understanding of the work as “somewhat fanciful…  I have imagined one of the three holy kings, when he sees the Star in the East from the battlements of his palace.  The picture is curious… The king, half life-size almost turns his back upon the spectator, and is, in the midst of the dark night, only lit by the mystic rays of the Star….  I have allowed myself a certain amount of pictorial license, which may well surprise the general spectator…  but which to me heightens the poetical impression of the whole” (as quoted in Barrington, p. 107). A large part of this “impression” is Leighton’s choice to paint what he described as a “long and narrow” composition with the looming king standing in “pure light” contrasted by the scene “quite at the bottom” visible “through an arch, into the hot lamp-light which illuminates” the revelry (as quoted in Barrington p. 107). The complicated architectural arrangement with the flattened, frieze-like forms of the musicians and dancers and the sculptural figure of the looming figure above create a dramatic framework: the king has left his lively, if inconsequential, party, crown modestly held in hand, as he looks toward the summoning, momentous star. Some of Leighton’s contemporary audience did not understand the relationship between the painting’s dual pictorial spaces and ambitious themes, but Leighton was pleased enough with the result that he used a similar composition for an illustration of Moses Viewing the Promised Land made for the Dalziel brothers’ illustrated Bible of 1863-4.  In Leighton’s works the primary focus of a single figure allows for a direct and impactful understanding of the subject—either in narrative force or emotive effect—an idea more prescient critics found “fresh and original” and a representational mode the artist would continue to employ through the remaining decades of his illustrious career (The Art Journal, p. 130).