Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910

FREDERIC, LORD LEIGHTON 1830-1896

120 'And the Sea Gave Up the Dead which Were in it' c.1891-2

Oil on canvas 228.5 (90) diameter
Prov: Commissioned by Sir Henry Tate, by whom presented to the Tate Gallery 1894
Exh: RA 1892 (115); Autumn Exhibition, Liverpool 1892 (1099); RA Winter 1897 (108); RA 1996 (116)
Lit: Art Journal, 1892, p.188; Magazine of Art, 1892, pp.220-1; Barrington 1906, II, p.193; Staley 1906, pp.146-8; Ormond 1975, pp.107, 123-4, 170, no.353, pl.154; Newall 1990, p.129

Tate Gallery. Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894

EXHIBITED IN LONDON ONLY

Leighton's stupendous tondo showing the resurrection of the dead as described in the Book of Revelation (20:13) is one of the most powerful and profound works of the artist's late career, and reflects his long and intense meditations on the state of death. Edgcumbe Staley, in his description of the painting, looked for the way in which Leighton had differentiated between the figures in their return to life, and his symbolical use of colour:

The colour-scheme is very remarkable, defining separate regions of life and illumination. The man is alive, his pulses are beating again, his flesh is reddening. His wife wears the greenish ghastly hue of death: his boy is breathing, but still pale and only half alive. The colours of the drapery extend the truth and sincerity of this gradual glow of life. The green sea, leaping up - jealous of losing its prey - and the grey rocks around, with newly opened graves, whence the dead are rising, are painted with a masterly brush.
The present composition was conceived as one of eight mosaic roundels on the theme of the Apocalypse to decorate the spandrels of the dome of St Paul's Cathedral. The scheme had been devised by Alfred Stevens and had been taken up by Edward John Poynter and Hugh Stannus in the early 1880s; Leighton's full-scale (22 feet in diameter) oil cartoon of the subject (now untraced) was made in c.1882-4. In the event a vociferous campaign against the scheme led to its being abandoned in 1885. Leighton kept back his sketch and, when Henry Tate announced his intention of founding a national collection of British art, he offered to work up the composition on the present reduced scale, stating in a letter to Tate: 'Now this is the work which I should like to be remembered by in our Natl Gallery' (quoted in RA 1996, p.231).

By the time 'And the Sea Gave Up the Dead which Were in It' was painted Leighton had abandoned the Hellenism of his middle period in favour of a style that was darker and more ominous (although always highly crafted). The new solemnity of Leighton's art from the late 1880s onwards owed much to his study of the painting of Michelangelo, for whom he felt 'a profound reverence [and] who satisfies those modern sides of our nature that the Greeks leave untouched' (quoted in RA 1996, p.194).

S.P. Cockerell thought the subject 'worthy to rank with the finest work in the Sixtine Chapel' (quoted in Staley 1906, p.147), and indeed the influence of Michelangelo is very evident. No doubt his huge Last Judgement was in Leighton's mind; and Stephen Jones has pointed out the relevance of the National Gallery's Entombment, which Leighton much admired. Its central group of linked vertical figures is one possible source for the main group in this picture. That motif also seems to suggest an acquaintance with Blake's scene of the Resurrection, an alternative design for Robert Blair's poem 'The Grave' (fig.10 on p.25), which had been in the collection of the British Museum since 1856. The Blake derivation is entirely appropriate, confirming the sense that this is a work at the heart of British Symbolism, embodying all too vividly a preoccupation with death - in Leighton's own case imminent; he was to live only another four years - and Idealist aspirations to higher things.

Although Leighton seems not to have been a man of conventional religious faith he was clearly absorbed by the idea of the return from death to life, and conversely the transition from life to the eternity of death, themes which occur in a series of metaphysical paintings of biblical and mythological subjects from the mid-1860s onwards. Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus: Ariadne Watches for his Return: Artemis Releases her by Death (Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad) and Hercules Wrestling with Death for the Body of Alcestis (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut) represent two essays on the theme of death, while a later mythological subject, The Return of Persephone (Leeds City Art Gallery), shows the release of Persephone from her annual period of imprisonment in Hades as a supernatural rebirth, her body symbolically raised as if by the osmotic power of spring.

The long-recognised parallels between the yearly return of Persephone to earth from the Underworld and the spiritual renewal of Christian resurrection, were dwelt on by Meredith and Frazer among other writers, and Leighton signals his own awareness of the connection very clearly in his use of the motif of linked, rising upright figures in both subjects. With its unambiguous movement upwards from darkness to light The Return of Persephone conveys a clear and positive meaning; the much darker tonality and less certain ascent of the half-living, half-dead figures in And the Sea Gave up the Dead make for a disturbingly ambiguous expression of both the morbid and the optimistic aspects of the Symbolist world view. Not surprisingly, the picture baffled some of Leighton's most enthusiastic critics. The Chapter of St Paul's had objected to the original design as 'unsuitable for a Christian church', and in its achieved form it was no easier to digest. The Magazine of Art thought his new version possessed 'a cold - almost oppressive - dignity'. Leighton's application of his famous principles of Classical Idealism to the depiction of the dead was itself worrying; the way the subject hovers between hope and annihilation, the subtle balance of promised life and actual death, were both unexpected and hard to understand. Leighton was rarely so shocking.

Christopher Newall and Andrew Wilton

Published in:
Andrew Wilton, Robert Upstone, and others, The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, pp.259-60 no.120, reproduced in colour p.259