Illustrated companion

'Lieder ohne Worte' is a masterpiece from the very beginning of Leighton's career in London, where he finally settled in the summer of 1859 after his studies abroad. He had been in Rome, where he met and became friends with Poynter, and in Paris, where they both met and became friends with Whistler.

'Lieder ohne Worte' is extraordinary in a number of ways. In general it announces both the classical revival and the Aesthetic Movement, and is a perfect marriage of the principles of both. Leighton's classicism is imaginative, unlike the everyday literalness of Alma-Tadema for example, and the picture evokes a delicate poetic mood. It is painted in carefully controlled harmonies of colour and the frame is consciously designed, probably by the artist, to relate to the painting and so create a unified decorative whole. The musical title evokes one of the basic principles of the Aesthetic Movement, that painting can function, like music, purely in an abstract and evocative way through relationships of colour and form.

Lieder ohne Worte is in fact the title of a group of forty-eight short piano pieces by Mendelssohn which were well known and popular in England. The 'Songs without Words' that the young woman is hearing are, of course, the musical splash of the fountain and the song of the bird above her.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.94