This is one of the earliest works that Leighton produced after settling in London in 1859. The title was suggested by a visitor to the artist's studio, Mrs Ralph Benson, and evokes Felix Mendelssohn's famous Songs without words, created for the piano between 1829 and 1845. In the picture, Leighton attempts to convey sound, or music, through paint. Sound is evoked by the blackbird at the top of the picture, which is shown in full song, and by the two fountains. One is high in the wall, with water gushing from a carved lion's head into a tank behind the seated girl; the other pours from the same tank into a tall black amphora.
Leighton uses colour following musical princples of harmony and counterpoint. The mellow golden and brown of the marble, the young girl's hair and the figure on the left give the painting a tonal harmony. The proliferation of dark blue or black features - the girl's skirt, the amphora, the blackbird, the ceramic pot in the hand of the retreating figure, the patterns on the floor and tank - all act as a counterpoint to the more mellow, dominant tone of the picture. Further contrasts are created by the touches of red in the girl's lips, her underskirt, the button on her shirt, the shadow on the lower fountain and the tall pot to the left of the picture. The girl is seated at the centre of the design, lost in thought. She is clearly pre-pubescent and the model for this figure was in fact a man, John Hanson Walker, who also posed for Leighton's Duett (1862, Royal Collection, London). The tall figure on the left probably derives from a figure in Fire in the Borgo (1512, Vatican, Rome) by Raphael (1483-1520).
When the picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1861 it was criticised for its concern with decoration and ornamentation. Certainly, the elaborate designs on the vases and fountain, and the tiled floor, with its diamond shapes and dark border, present a profusion of contrasting geometric patterns. Leighton laid the picture out in thirty-two rectangles and structured it in such a way that the outlines of the steps, floor, pillars, walls and even the jars and figure on the left are all related in a strict series of horizontals and verticals. Architecturally, however, the picture is inconsistent and misleading and the layout of the building makes little sense.
Stephen Jones, Christopher Newall, Leonée Ormond, Richard Ormond and Benedict Read, Frederic Leighton, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 1996, pp.122-4. no.21, reproduced p.123, in colour.
Andrew Wilton and Robert Upstone, The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, p.109, no.10, reproduced p.109, in colour.