In London, Leighton House—the eclectic residence of Victorian artist Frederic, Lord Leighton—has reopened after a $9.75 million restoration, drawing fresh attention to its halls of Islamic tiles, walls of British art, and a solitary, taxidermied peacock, perched on the stairs.
Meanwhile, in New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has borrowed Leighton’s most renowned painting, Flaming June, from an unexpected source: the Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico. This isn’t just a series of transatlantic chances; it’s synchronicity, at least a century in the making.
“This moment is especially ripe, given the re-appreciation of Victorian painting that’s been happening over the past 20 or 30 years,” said Alison Hokanson, the Met curator responsible for the loan. “Scholars, curators, and the public are open to these works of art in a way, perhaps, that they weren’t, decades ago.”
Take Flaming June. Victorian art couldn’t hope for a more irresistible emblem than the painting of a woman in an apricot-colored gown, sleeping by a sun-drenched sea. She embodies 19th-century aestheticism and its motto, “Art for art’s sake”—the idea that a painting can have no greater meaning than itself.
We can experience every inch of the woman’s sleeping figure, and feel the luscious languor that radiates from her heated body, without needing to know anything else about her: who she is, why she’s sleeping, or what she’s dreaming about. We are her, but she isn’t us.
She embodies 19th-century aestheticism and its motto, “Art for art’s sake”—the idea that a painting can have no greater meaning than itself.
For the Victorians, this kind of art represented an elevated world apart, to be profoundly felt but never entered. For the people who came after, however, it represented an insular world, distinctly out of touch.
Lord Leighton painted Flaming June in 1895, during the twilight of the Victorian age. He was by then the president of the Royal Academy—the pinnacle of the British artistic establishment—and ensconced in his studio-house, on Holland Park Road, Kensington. Known as Leighton’s “Palace of Art,” the house contained a rarefied world within its walls: an Arab Hall, covered in 16th-century Iznik tiles, a purpose-built picture gallery for works by Italian Renaissance artists, and, naturally, a double-height studio for presenting his own paintings.
Leighton’s prominence in Victorian society was so overpowering that Henry James, in his 1892 story “The Private Life,” caricatured him as Lord Mellifont, an artist whose “reputation was a kind of graceful obelisk,” but who literally disappears when out of the public eye.
In spring 1895, the Prince and Princess of Wales, fellow artists, and journalists gathered in Leighton’s studio to view his latest offerings, among them Flaming June. The reception was mixed. Outside leafy Kensington, Oscar Wilde was in the thick of his trial for gross indecency, scrubbing the superficial respectability from Victorian society, while in Paris, Paul Cézanne was preparing his first solo exhibition of pre-Cubist paintings. The art world was changing, and Leighton’s health was failing. He died in 1896 of angina pectoris, and Flaming June quickly fell out of fashion. Within 30 years, it had disappeared, while Leighton’s house fell into disrepair.
A chance discovery re-ignited the fortunes of Flaming June, when an Irish builder stumbled upon the painting in a house he was demolishing near Clapham Common in South London. It was 1962, the year Andy Warhol first showed his Campbell’s-soup-can paintings at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, and, to the builder, Flaming June must have seemed like an unwieldy anachronism. He hauled it to a local framer’s and sold it for $168.
Incredibly, a teenage Andrew Lloyd Webber spotted Flaming June in the framer’s shopwindow. He asked his grandmother if he could buy it. “I will not have that Victorian junk in my flat!” she insisted, and Lloyd Webber missed his chance. He would later become, as well as an impresario of musical theater, one of the great collectors of Victorian art.
Flaming June, meanwhile, had an even more unexpected future in store. The framer in Clapham sold the painting to a barber. The barber sold it to a private art dealer, who sold it to Jeremy Maas, a West End gallerist, who had just opened his new premises, among the first in many decades, dedicated to exhibiting Victorian art. This was where a Puerto Rican philanthropist, Luis A. Ferré, fell in love with Flaming June in 1963. He paid Maas $5,600—the highest price paid for a Leighton painting since the artist’s death—and sent it across the Atlantic Ocean to Puerto Rico, where it became the centerpiece of his newly founded Museo de Arte de Ponce. Here it has earned the affectionate, if geographically inaccurate, sobriquet, “The Mona Lisa of the Southern Hemisphere.”
“I will not have that Victorian junk in my flat!”
Today, Ponce holds what is probably the most important group of Victorian paintings outside the U.K., as well as an impressive collection of Caribbean, Latin American, and European art. Its imposing modernist edifice, designed by MoMA architect Edward Durell Stone, speaks to the prestige of what’s inside and how highly it’s prized in Puerto Rico.
After Hurricane Maria in 2017, the museum was one of the first cultural institutions to reopen, providing shelter and comfort to a devastated community. A 2020 earthquake, however, significantly damaged the building and necessitated a partial closure for repairs. It also offered the chance for the collection to travel and be seen by a wider public. “In the current climate, we are not an island anymore,” said Maria Luisa Ferré, the president of the museum’s board of trustees. “We must be part of a larger artistic eco-system.”
The loan of works from the Museo de Arte de Ponce to the Met, which lasts until February 2024, makes possible the most ambitious presentation of Victorian art that the museum has attempted in decades. Ponce’s paintings—Flaming June, along with Edward Coley Burne-Jones’s three-part Briar Rose series and The Escape of a Heretic, by John Everett Millais—are being paired with works from the Met’s own collection and hung in one of the museum’s grandest spaces.
Gallery 800 is a vast, vaulted corridor in the very heart of the Met and is usually reserved for 19th-century French art, once the bread and butter of American collecting. Hanging Victorian paintings in its place signals a telling shift. “This definitely falls into an area of the collection that we would love to expand,” said Hokanson.
In London, newly reopened Leighton House is also expanding its reach. For decades, the house prided itself on being an elegant landmark of Victorian Kensington, re-assembling Leighton’s paintings and personal effects, which were dispersed after his death, and displaying them in a way that the artist would have recognized.
Today, the museum is pushing that mission into the present. Focusing on Leighton’s Arab Hall and interest in Islamic art, a new visitors’ wing has been decorated by Afghan artisans from King Charles’s Turquoise Mountain charity, while the Iranian artist Shahrzad Ghaffari has created a staircase mural, entitled Oneness, which connects the old and the new areas of the house.
After more than a century, Flaming June isn’t just resilient; it’s also relevant. Internationally fêted artists such as Kerry James Marshall, Salman Toor, and Kehinde Wiley, to name but a few, are turning to figurative art—and Wiley’s 2022 painting Reclining Nude (Babacar Mané) shows a Black man in an orange sweatshirt, asleep in a most familiar pose.
Who knows why a painting like Flaming June keeps coming back, but the reasons go far beyond the art world. Some people may be looking for a dreamlike escape from ever more troubling times. Others may be craving a physical connection in a digital age. But everyone, on some level, is searching for a Flaming June.
“Victorian Masterpieces from the Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico” is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, through February 2024
Patrick Monahan is a freelance writer and art adviser, specializing in British paintings, drawings, and sculpture. Instagram: @thepatrickmonahan