Textiles, Textures, and Cherries by Samantha Timm

Mother and Child by Frederic, Lord Leighton

At Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery we are always pleased when the collections are used in research. Here is a blog based on the author’s MA dissertation. Samantha Timm is a curator and independent art historian specializing in 19th-century British Art. She completed her MA in the History of Art at the University of York, England, and her BA in Art History and English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She curated displays for the exhibition Albert Moore: Of Beauty and Aesthetics at York Art Gallery in 2017.

December 2018 marked the 250th anniversary of the Royal Academy of Arts—cause for celebration of one of the institution’s most dedicated Presidents.

Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896) worked tirelessly to promote fellow Academicians and lesser-known artists during his tenure as President of the Royal Academy from 1878 until his death in 1896, and was meticulous in selecting his artwork for public viewing. His painting Mother and Child (Cherries), on display at the Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1865. [1] Cherries is an important work in Leighton’s “Venice Series,” a sequence of paintings conceived in a deliberately interconnected manner that allowed him to work out his hybrid style of Venetian Aestheticism.

Queen Victoria was an early supporter of Leighton and his Venetian inclinations, evident in her journal entry from 3 May 1855. She perceived one of his earlier paintings, Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna, as “reminding me of Paul Veronese, so bright + full of lights.” [2] Her comment reveals an early hint of Leighton’s love for the luminosity and sumptuous style of the Venetian Renaissance masters, both elements overflowing in Cherries.

Leighton painted the Venice Series during the concentrated period of c.1862–1871. No existing scholarship has interrogated the question of Leighton’s relationship to and interest in Venice, so this article will address the critical ways in which his study of the Renaissance and his Venetian Aestheticism are manifest in Cherries. This painting sheds light on Leighton’s use of textures and his problematizing of Venetian Renaissance colour and style in an effort to reconcile this with the Aesthetic Movement that was gaining popularity in the 1860s in Britain. Aestheticism as a style prioritised a search for new beauty, or unconventionally beautiful objects and forms, and artists expressed this by painting sensuously and depicting sumptuous fabrics and patterns. Cherries visualises the Aesthetic and Renaissance traits Leighton used in the Venice Series: female beauty heightened by decorative objects placed around the canvas was his ideal way to express physical and artistic beauty.

Leighton’s Venetian Aestheticism is defined by the proliferation of silk textiles, a particular way of modelling the figure, and a vivid Venetian colour palette. By collecting Venetian Renaissance artists and emulating them in his work, Leighton simultaneously acquired knowledge about these old masters and educated the public on the core elements of Venetian painting. He was known to own over twenty paintings by Venetian Renaissance artists including Giorgione, Tintoretto, and Titian, whose style he idolized and integrated into his own. [3]

During his visits to Venice in 1852, 1856, 1864, and 1867, [4] Leighton sketched and studied its people, art, and architecture closely so that he might transform what he saw into canvases replete with a vivid colour palette and sensuous textures. Early in his career, he developed an extreme self-consciousness about his public appearance and the ways in which his paintings represented him as an artist, gentleman, and a hopeful leader of the Royal Academy. [5] Therefore, I read his choice to create the Venice Series in the span of about ten years as his effort to not only reinvigorate his own palette and increase his popularity, but also to re-establish art-historical and stylistic ties between Venetian Renaissance and English painting. Leighton was a true Venetophile and situated his work self-consciously among visual and textual materials about the Renaissance circulating in England during the 1860s and 1870s.

Leighton’s knowledge of Renaissance Venice was more specialised than has been previously thought, on the grounds of his self-guided apprenticeship to Venetian Renaissance painters such as Titian and Veronese, and his careful study of Italian draughtsmanship and painting from pictures in museums he visited in Venice, as well as the National Gallery in London. Leighton positioned himself as an important authority—in the public sphere as well as in Royal Academy circles—on Venetian Renaissance painting. His knowledge of the period extended to topography, architecture, and specifically, Venetian fashion and cosmetics.

Leighton used Cherries to revitalize a cosmetic trend lost after the Renaissance. [6] The artist’s deliberate choice of details as subtle as the auburn colour of the mother’s hair is consistent with his knowledge of dyeing practices in Renaissance Venice. During his 1852 visit, he noticed a “profusion of fine hair” which the women “plait in the most elaborate manner.” [7] Leighton explains in a letter that “those who go to Venice” in hopes of “seeing Titians and Veroneses at the windows and in the streets” will be sorely disappointed to find that women have “altogether left off dyeing their hair auburn as they used to in former times.” [8]

That Leighton did not hesitate to exhibit this type of picture speaks to his confidence in displaying his female-oriented version of the Renaissance. While he was lauded for his “usual beauty of form” and subtlety of drawing,” critics noted the lack of a “decisive line or shadow” in Cherries, which would clarify the “confusion arising from the “mingling of the figure of the child into the drapery which clothes its mother.” [9] Remedies suggested by the critic are presented in highly gendered terms, from the “forms” which Leighton “melts…so voluptuously together,” to the “strong points which an ordinary artist would use to gain manly force.” [10] From this, I conclude that Leighton “dread[ed] the intrusion” of severe divisions in the composition: he omitted any disruptive lines that might refer to the hard male body, and opted to declare the absolute femininity of the subject by prioritising the “silvery delicacy of colour,” relishing the curving forms of the mother and child. [11] The proximity and indistinguishable boundary between the mother’s large right sleeve and the child’s light shift of the same colour maintains a kind of gentleness in their interaction. Cherries is a painting formidable in its approach to colour and contrast: Leighton highlights his talent for painting large swaths of white monochromatic fabric such that it is possible to discern its folds in a garment seemingly unfathomable in its absence of colour.

This artwork also reflects the numerous sketches and paintings Leighton completed around this time that visualise the relationship between a mother and her child, contained mostly in his sketchbook used from 1852–1855. [12] In Cherries, Leighton asks us not only to empathize with and participate in a personal moment, but also to understand the mother and daughter’s relationship in tactile and spatial terms. The mother’s silk skirts are highly finished, while the lightweight white shift of the child is painted with visible brushstrokes of an impasto technique. The light pinkish silk skirt adorning the maternal figure is creased noticeably at the bend in her right knee—shaping her leg and emphasizing the width of her waist­­—and also at her upper left thigh, outlining the form of her other leg. Her substantial hips and huge puffed white sleeves reminiscent of Renaissance fashion envelope the child, whose form is conversely petite and compact with her legs crossed together and tucked close to her body.

The eponymous fruit in Cherries takes an important role in generating meaning within an Aesthetic context. The inclusion of cherries does not allude to an unspoken tension between childhood innocence and sexual maturity, as in John Everett Millais’ painting Cherry Ripe of 1879; rather, the cherries draw a close chromatic and tactile link between the mother and child, and unify the painting with the deep crimson colour. The central moment we observe as viewers—the dark-haired girl offering the fruit to her mother—appears contained within the space between them. However, this moment is exploded and extended throughout the painting as our eyes move from the single cherry barely poised on the child’s fingers, across the curves and planes of the mother’s porcelain skin, and above her head to the legs and vaguely defined plumage of the cranes on the screen. The sloping form of the mother’s hip and the vivacious creases of her flesh-toned silk skirt guide us back, at last, to the bunch of unpicked cherries in the foreground, leaves still attached, next to the small pair of black slippers.

Moreover, Leighton utilizes cherries as a prop in the picture in order to refer to the aesthetic qualities of flesh. This prompts a deeper visual analysis of the painting’s diverse textures. From the child’s profile—partly obscured in shadow and a deep blush on her right cheek—to her mother’s exposed face, neck, right hand, and wrist that gesture to the pale-pink sheen of her skirt, we are meant to understand the scene in sensory terms. Leighton describes the deep scarlet flesh of each cherry with a sense of plumpness, and adds flecks of white paint to demonstrate its smooth, taut exterior. Every surface is sensuously painted.

Receding into the painting’s background, the gilded Japanese screen is used here as a mechanism to infuse the scene with an additional visually pleasing element while also documenting the important exchange occurring between Japan and the rest of the world. The presence of this art object confirms Leighton’s awareness of, and interest in, the International Exhibition of 1862 in London; Christopher Newall attributes the presence of this type of Japanese screen to the display of certain private collections at the exhibition, particularly those of the first British Consul-General to Japan, Rutherford Alcock. [13] Leighton owned several Japanese prints, [14] and his Presidential Address delivered at the Art Congress at Liverpool on 3 December, 1888, attests to his high opinion of the Japanese artistic sensibility: “With them the sense of decorative distribution and of subtle loveliness of form and colour is absolutely universal, and expresses itself in every most ordinary appliance of daily life, overflowing…” [15]

Leighton’s tenacity in art making extended to his desire to help the poor as well: in addition to building his own professional and artistic persona, Leighton’s motivation in exhibiting Cherries was, in part, generosity. The Venice Series was Leighton’s method of educating working- and middle-class Victorians about beauty and art, and he rendered these paintings legible and accessible to publics with little knowledge of the history of art and material culture. Cherries, like the other paintings in the Venice Series, was a teaching tool. This painting is a key example of Leighton’s Venetian Aestheticism, a style that relied on its legibility and accessibility, made so because of the inclusion of the most beautiful elements of Venetian Renaissance painting, including silk textiles and a vivid colour palette.

Leighton participated in a social movement known as missionary aestheticism in order to develop and sustain the public’s ability to recognise what was truly beautiful, a worthy cause in light of the industrialisation that defaced landscapes and urbanisation that brutalized cities in the Victorian period. [16] Leighton believed that artists had the power to help people rise above their class limitations, and that “…in seeking to elicit and to cultivate their sense of what is beautiful you are opening up to them a deep source of enjoyment, and…rendering them great and lasting service.” [17]

Leighton’s Cherries represents the confluence of styles and objects belonging to at least two art-historical traditions: while the inclusion of sumptuous fabrics and Venetian Renaissance dress alongside Japanese objects could have been jarring, Leighton crafts the scene into one that seamlessly unifies several sumptuous and historically disparate elements, and thus becomes quintessentially Aesthetic. This is another way we might read Leighton’s engagement with Aestheticism in the 1860s and 1870s: it allowed him to prioritise the most beautiful forms and techniques in the history of art.

Cherries is significant to viewers and art historians today for its engagement in cross-cultural dialogues, and the ways in which it images the artist’s intrinsic study of global art histories. These paintings are not empty of meaning, but rather are replete with Leighton’s intention of offering an opportunity for broader audiences to view and understand what his version of beauty was, a choice inextricably bound up with the motive of allowing everyone access, regardless of their art-historical knowledge. Thinking of Leighton increasingly as an artist educator before and during his tenure at the Royal Academy is helpful in reflecting upon his position in relation to Academic and Aesthetic artist circles: he considered himself a student of Venetian Renaissance masters, and a teacher of his 19th-century contemporaries. Crucially, Leighton’s work reminds us of the more immediate concern of the vitality of Venice today, and the necessity to keep diverse publics engaged in its history in order to ensure the on-going restoration and conservation of its important historical and art-historical treasures.

[1] Algernon Graves, The Royal Academy of Arts; A Complete Dictionary of Contributors and their work from its foundation in 1789 to 1904, Volume V (London: H. Graves and Co., 1906), 31.

[2] Leighton House Museum, “Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna is Carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence,” Colour Sketch, 2012-0002, accessed 21 January 2019.

[3] Leighton House Museum, “Noble Lady of Venice,” oil on canvas, LH/P/OT/0375, accessed 21 January 2019.

[4] Leighton House Museum, “Leighton Timeline,” accessed 21 January 2019,

[5] Leighton carefully cultivated his public persona so that he might earn the acceptance of his contemporaries in order to exercise a more widespread influence over the British public. Samantha Timm, “The Artist’s Stage: Frederic Leighton’s Cultural Hybridity and Orientalist Aestheticism,” (Undergraduate diss., University of Wisconsin–Madison, 2015), 2.

[6] For the use of cosmetics and their corresponding impact on art in the 19th century, see Ribeiro, Facing Beauty: Painted Women and Cosmetic Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011).

[7] Emilie Barrington, The Life, Letters, and Work of Frederic Leighton (New York: Macmillan Company, 1906), I, 82.

[8] Ibid., 83.

[9] “The Royal Academy,” The Art Journal (Jun 1865), 163.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Leighton House Museum Archive, LH/D/0437.

[13] Christopher Newall, “Mother and Child,” in Frederic Leighton (London: Royal Academy of Arts, with Harry N. Abrams, 1996), 137.

[14] Christie, Manson & Woods, Catalogue of the Valuable Library of the Right Hon. Lord Leighton of Stretton (London: Christie, Manson & Woods, 13 July 1896): 25.

[15] Barrington, II, Appendix, Presidential Address delivered at the Art Congress, held at Liverpool, December 3rd, 1888, 347.

[16] Diana Maltz, British Aestheticism and the Urban Working Classes, 1870-1900: Beauty for the People (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 52.

[17] Barrington, Life, Letters and Work, II, 274.

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