Exhibition catalogue text

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


10 Lieder ohne W?rte c.1860-1

Oil on canvas 101.7 x 63 (40 x 24 3/4)
Prov: James Stewart Hodgson; his sale, Christie's, 3 June 1893 (26); bt Sir Charles Cavendish Clifford, 4th Bt; his sister Augusta Cavendish Clifford; her cousin Mme Ernest Mallet, Paris, c.1930; by descent; Christie's, 29 Feb. 1980, (208); bt by the Tate Gallery 1980
Exh: RA 1861 (550); Brighton 1884 (124); RA 1996 (21)
Lit: Art Journal, 1861, p.172; Athenaeum, 1861, pp.600-1, 698; Saturday Review, 1861, p.531; Macmillan's Magazine, 1861, pp.206-7; Barrington 1906, II, pp.17, 57-63, 65, 76, 367; Staley 1906, p.60; Ormond 1975, pp.49, 60, 153, no.64; Tate Gallery, Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1978-80, pp.31-5; Newall 1990, pp.19, 32-3, 35

Tate Gallery. Purchased 1980

Lieder ohne W?rte was the first significant painting that Leighton undertook following his establishment in London in the latter part of 1859. He worked on it in 1860, and exhibited it at the Royal Academy in 1861. Torn as he was between a desire to establish his reputation in the wider art world (1861 was the year when he first sought election as an associate of the Royal Academy) and an allegiance to the more rarefied circle of ex-Pre-Raphaelites and painters who had trained abroad that gathered at the Hogarth Club, Lieder ohne W?rte may be seen as a declaration towards the progressive movement in painting.

Leighton announced his intention of pursuing the noumenal and hermetically enclosed character of the 'La Nanna' series (see no.1) in a letter to his father: 'Before I began to paint "Lieder ohne W?rte" ... I intended to make it realistic, but from the first moment I began I felt the mistake, and made it professedly and pointedly the reverse' (Barrington 1906, II, p.62). The tangible, quantifiable and comprehensible character of a painting implied by the word 'realistic' was what painters who understood the precepts of French Aestheticism or 'art for art's sake' in the early 1860s were seeking to overturn in favour of images that were perplexing or even disturbing in their ambiguous and undefined nature.

In a letter written in the spring of 1861 to his erstwhile master Edward von Steinle, Leighton explained his intention in the work: 'It represents a girl, who is resting by a fountain, and listening to the ripple of the water and the song of a bird. The subject is, of course, quite incomplete without colour, as I have endeavoured, both by colour and by flowing delicate forms, to translate to the eye of the spectator something of the pleasure which the child receives through her ears. This idea lies at the base of the whole thing, and is managed to the best of my ability in every detail' (ibid., p.63). A few days earlier, when Leighton had invited friends to his Orme Square studio to see the works intended for the Royal Academy, Lieder ohne W?rte had attracted the most admiration. It was on this occasion that its German title - 'Songs without Words' - had been suggested.

Although the work was badly hung at Trafalgar Square, it met with some enthusiastic reviews, such as that which appeared in Macmillan's Magazine (perhaps echoing the words that Leighton himself had used to describe the painting): 'There is nothing to tell that the fair young girl who sits before us, lost in a dream, is of Roman, Egyptian, Grecian, or Medieval time or country. As her fancies are proper to girlhood, so her costume, her beauty, and the architecture with which she is surrounded are indefinite and only beautiful' (1861, pp.206-7). Conversely, the Art Journal, while conceding that the painting had 'caused considerable talk in artistic and literary circles', condemned it as of the 'lower forms of mere decorative ornamentation' (1861, p.172).

Christopher Newall

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, p.109 no.10, reproduced in colour p.109