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Exhibition Review: Flaming June

Adorning the marble bath in his Summer Slumber, Sir Frederic Leighton includes two sculptures in the background, and two reliefs along a bath itself. Look closely and you may recognise the one in the bottom right. Leighton became so attached to this design, that he gave her a canvas of her own; one which earned her the right to be called his most iconic work. Now, 128 years after she was first exhibited at the Royal Academy, Flaming June has returned to London. 

Leighton was nicknamed the Jupiter Olympus in reference to his standing in the art world and his passion for antiquity, but Flaming June doesn’t reference a myth or anyone of historical significance. Instead, she is said to have been inspired by two individuals: a tired model in Leighton’s studio, and Michelangelo’s figure of Night on the tomb of Giuliano de’ Medici in the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence which he claimed was the supreme achievement of western art. 

Sleeping figures are associated with sensuality, tranquillity, and vulnerability, and this particular figure checks all three boxes. Unaware she’s being watched, she invites voyeurism from where she almost entirely fills a four-foot canvas. Her clothes are so delicate that they cling to her body like a lover, the almost transparent material looking more like the robes of antiquity rather than connected to Leighton’s era, making her appear timeless. Despite have fallen asleep in the shade, her cheek and ear are flushed. From heat, perhaps, or maybe whatever she’s dreaming. A molten gold sunset in the background adds to this almost otherworldly quality.  

In the Victorian era, death and sleep were often intertwined. It’s unsurprising then that the plant in the top right corner is the toxic oleander, with connects sleep and death. It also only blooms in May and June in reference to her name. 

The flaming colour palette could also be a reference to June, which is filled with ripe oranges. Or perhaps there’s more to it. Observing the glimpse of her breast, perhaps it is a sign of fecundity. Queen Victoria is said to have insisted on wearing a wreath of orange in her hair when she married, much like the Saracen brides, for that very reason. Or, with Leighton being a learned man, perhaps it is a reference to the word ‘naranga’, Sanskrit for fragrant and the root for the word ‘orange’. 

Like pre-Raphaelite painters such as Rossetti and Waterhouse, Leighton paints his figure with long copper coloured hair. The pre-Raphaelites saw a romantic beauty in this hair colour but, at the time, it was also associated with evil and seduction and with women unafraid to fight their fate. Therefore, perhaps death is more prevalent in this work than we realise.  

Leighton also highlights the harmony of geometry. The curves of Flaming June’s body are within first the bench lines and then the square of the canvas, surrounded by a gold frame which is a reproduction of the lost original. This concept is reminiscent of the theories put forth by Vitruvius, and so beautifully explained in Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Is Flaming June perfection, then? Is that why we are drawn to her while she sleeps and dreams in a room filled with the masters Leighton was inspired by?

Visit Sir Frederic Leighton’s Flaming June at the Royal Academy before 12th January 2025 and decide for yourself. 

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