Posted: 9th September 2020
Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896) was president of the Royal Academy by 1878 and his works were extremely popular during his lifetime. Leighton is sometimes speculated to have been gay, having never married, though as he left behind no letters, diaries or other documents which might give us an insight into his personal life, we assume he was heterosexual.
Letters from Leighton’s first patron however, a wealthy aristocrat, Henry Greville are assumed to be love letters, referring to Leighton as ‘mon petite dernier’ and other familiar terms such as ‘Fay’. Leighton’s letters to Greville, however, are lost to us and so we remain unaware as to whether Leighton reciprocated these feelings. A relationship between Leighton and his favourite female model, Dorothy Rene, is sometimes cited as evidence for Leighton’s heterosexuality though to suggest a man’s relationship with a woman is evidence of his heterosexuality is perhaps outdated.
In addition, some of Leighton’s works can easily be interpreted as homoerotic, such as the Bronze statues The Sluggard and Athlete Struggling with a Python. We must be careful, however, in looking too deep into images in order to find truths about the artist, and recognise that although there may be suggestions of Leighton’s sexuality in his works, there will likely never be any evidence which concretely confirms it.
The question of Leighton’s sexuality also brings to light how figures throughout history are read instinctively as heterosexual. Though the evidence which suggests Leighton was not heterosexual is not conclusive, it cannot be disregarded because of this fact. Just as we can never confirm Leighton’s homosexuality, neither can we deny it simply because of the assumptions we make about people in the nineteenth century, to do so would be to imply that society decides a person’s sexuality. We may speculate that the lack of evidence surrounding Leighton’s personal life could represent something in Leighton’s personal life which he wished to hide, though this remains purely speculative.
In the Ferens collection, the work ‘Electra at the Tomb of Agamemnon’, Leighton utilises rich tones of colour which, alongside the relative androgyny of his densely cloaked female figure, provides the work with an emotional intensity seen in many of Leighton’s works. Further to this, though the painting is academic in style, often said to be a portrait or genre scene, beside the title of the work we are given no indication as to what, or who, this image is intended to represent rather the title adds to the enigma of the work.
Written by University of Hull student Eleanor Harris.
I am a soon to be graduate of the University of Hull with a particular interest in the History of Art. Sexuality in art, and throughout history, is an extremely interesting and increasingly complex topic. Standards of a particular era can often lead people to deny or destroy any evidence which might have provided us with a clue to their personal relationships – especially if these relationships were anything other than heterosexual. Assuming that historical figures are heterosexual until otherwise declared may lead us to a less diverse view of the past than is accurate.
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