Sunday, September 27, 2015

Flaming Jane

Frederic Leighton, Flaming Jane, 1895  , 47" x 47", oil on canvas

This painting by the English classical painter, Frederic Leighton, is considered his masterpiece, has been widely reproduced in posters and  is beloved by many.  So why did Flaming Jane go unsold for its reserve price at auction in 1960 allowing a London dealer (The Maas Gallery) to acquire it for $140? ($840 in today's dollars)?

For one thing, 1960 (the Abstract Expressionist, Pop Art, Op Art, Color Field Art among other modern movements Era) was not the time to be selling Victorian art.  In view of the demand for Rothko, Kline, Stella, Warhol, Rauschenberg, Pollack et al, there was no demand for a stiff, formal, classically painted nymph/goddess figure.  But also the painting was controversial in the eyes of many in its own right.  The posture was questioned - particularly the positioning and size of the figure's right arm and thigh - as was the reality of the flow of the diaphanous fabric. More damning were the many English critics who called it kitsch.

But the painting's supporters feel the transparent material is very real.  They hail the stunningly rich colors, perfectly recreated marble surround and Leighton's use of natural light, allowing the painting to be lit by the molten gold of the sunset.  In other words, they praise it as embodying "Art for Art's Sake" which was what Leighton and the Pre-Raphaelite school which immediately followed him prized above all.

Possibly Flaming Jane's greatest supporter was Luis A. Ferre, a noted Puerto Rican industrialist, politician and founder of the Museo de Arte de Ponce.  On a buying trip to London for his museum in 1962 Ferre encountered her at the Maas Gallery, was immediately smitten and bought her for the unheard of price of $2000 (Today @$9,000).  He had her restored, and she has been hanging in the Museo's permanent collection ever since.  Occasionally she makes visits to places such as the Prado (Madrid), Tate (London) and the Frick (New York where she was for a few weeks this summer). In every case art critical controversy precedes her and continues to grow when she arrives.

So she's not quite the innocently sleeping maiden she appears.  In fact, it has been pointed out that the red flowers on the ledge above her are oleanders which are known to be poisonous, thus suggesting Flaming Jane is a dangerously alluring femme fatale figure.  Other Freudian and Modernist interpretations abound  for those who see her painting as much more than Art for Art's Sake.

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