Frederic, Lord Leighton

Lieder ohne Worte

exhibited 1861

Not on display

Frederic, Lord Leighton 1830–1896
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1016 × 629 mm
frame: 1300 × 920 × 70 mm
Purchased 1980


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.

Further reading:
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.

Frances Fowle
December 2000

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Display caption

This was the first significant work Leighton painted after he returned to London from studying in continental Europe. The title refers to the ‘Songs without Words’ the girl is listening to: the sound of the gently trickling water and the singing of the blackbird behind her. Leighton knew many of his viewers would connect the painting with Mendelssohn’s set of piano pieces of the same title, which were very popular in England at this time. The subject’s ‘timelessness’, and the harmony of composition and colouring, suggest the power of music to evoke specific moods.

Gallery label, November 2016

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Catalogue entry

T03053 LIEDER OHNE WORTE 1860–61

Oil on canvas, 40 × 24 3/4 (101.7 × 63.0)
Purchased at Christie's (Grant-in-aid) 1980
Prov: Painted for James Stuart Hodgson, sold Christie's 3 June 1893 (26), bt. Sir Charles Cavendish Clifford, 4th Bart; his sister, Miss Augusta Caroline Clifford; given by her to her second cousin, Mme Ernest Mallet of Paris c.1930; by descent until sold anonymously, Christie's 29 February 1980 (208, repr. in colour), bt. Roy Miles Fine Paintings for the Tate Gallery.
Exh: R.A. 1861 (550); Brighton Art Loan Exhibition, Brighton 1884 (124).
Lit: Athenaeum, 4 May 1861, pp.600–1, 25 May 1861, p.698; The Times, 4 May 1861, p.12; The Critic, 11 May 1861, pp.606–7, 25 May 1861, p.671; Macmillan's Magazine, IV, 1861, pp.206–7; Art Journal, 1 June 1861, p.172; Henry Stacy Marks, Pen and Pencil Sketches, 1894, II, pp.2–3; Mrs. Russell Barrington, ‘Lord Leighton's Sketches’, National Review, December 1896, p.514; Mrs Russell Barrington, The Life Letters and Work of Frederic Leighton, 1906, I, p.251, II, pp.57–65; Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ed. Oswald Doughty and J.R. Wahl, II, 1965, p.399; Leonée and Richard Ormond, Lord Leighton, 1975, pp.49, 60, 153; The Tate Gallery 1978–80, p.19, repr. in col.

‘Lieder ohne Worte’ was probably begun in the second half of 1860. It was produced in the immediate aftermath of Leighton's return to England from his studies and travels on the Continent when, in the summer of 1859, he finally established permanent residence in London. The picture was the largest and the most important of Leighton's exhibits at the Royal Academy in 1861 - being shown at a time when he was acutely aware of opposition to him and his art from the Academic establishment, when many of his pictures were unsold and when he was particularly keen to score a notable public success.

If, in its poetical qualities, ‘Lieder ohne Worte’ has a precedent in Leighton's oeuvre it is to be found in the series of portrait studies of Italian women - notably of the model La Nanna - which were painted during his stay in Rome in 1859 and exhibited at the Royal Academy the same year. In fact, the image of a girl at a fountain seems in many ways to be a recollection of those months in Italy which had brought Leighton's years abroad to a close and perhaps the initial idea for the picture might have owed something to his familiarity with what was a common sight in Italian towns and villages.

Another source for the idea, hinted at in one review of the picture when it was exhibited, might have been the work of the French artist Ernest Hébert (1817–1908) with whom Leighton had become friendly during his time in Paris in 1855. It seems quite likely that Leighton would have been aware of a characteristic picture by Hébert, ‘Les Cervarolles (États romain)’ which had been exhibited at the Salon of 1859 and is now in the Louvre. The similarities between this painting and ‘Lieder ohne Worte’ are striking, both in subject matter and in the way the actual paint is handled. Hébert's picture also shows two women water-carriers-one, accompanied by a small girl, coming down a flight of steps towards the spectator, whilst another, holding a water jar on her head, is returning up the steps behind her. However, Leighton makes no acknowledgement of any such direct influence; it is also quite obvious, from all that he said about it, that his intention in painting ‘Lieder ohne Worte’ was very far removed from the evocation of a specific time or place or particular incident of the kind portrayed by Hébert.

After the picture was completed, Leighton wrote to his father: ‘I remember, it is true, telling you before I began to paint “Lieder ohne Worte” that 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.’ In a letter written at about the same time to his teacher Edward von Steinle, he enlarged on this idea: ‘... 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 conveyed to the best of my ability in every detail...’.

Leighton's close friend and his first biographer, Mrs Russell Barrington, affirmed on at least two occasions that the artist used a portrait of a boy as a study for the head of the girl in ‘Lieder’. The claim has to be treated with caution, but she does offer some evidence to support it for, in an article in the National Review of December 1896, she noted that ‘Lord Leighton first showed me some of his sketches more than thirty years ago when a friend took me to his studio in Orme Square. One sketch was of a boy's head with a heavy shock of curly hair from under which large almond-shaped eyes looked dreamily at you. As he held it up I exclaimed “Lieder ohne Worte”. This was the name of a picture by Leighton which I had seen and which had fascinated me when I was very young. I remember his quick look of surprise... I did not see the picture entitled “Lieder ohne Worte” for which the sketch of the boy's head was drawn, again till a few years ago, when it appeared on view in Messrs Christie's rooms...’

Later, in her biography published in 1906, Mrs Barrington illustrated this drawing (vol.I, pl.54) and identified it as a portrait of John Hanson Walker; the drawing is now in the Leighton House collection (no.959). Inscribed and dated ‘[18]60/Bath’, the carefully executed portrait undoubtedly shows the features of the sixteen or seventeen year old Walker, as a comparison with two slightly later oil portraits of him by Leighton - ‘Rustic Music’ (Sotheby's, 9 April 1980, 48 repr.) and ‘Duet’ (coll. H.M. Queen Elizabeth, repr. Ormond pl.68), both of 1861 - proves. The similarities between the admittedly androgynous looks of Walker, as shown in the 1860 drawing, and those of the girl portrayed in ‘Lieder ohne Worte’ are too close to ignore the probability that one did indeed provide the prototype for the other. Taking into consideration Leighton's evident attraction to the boy and even, perhaps, bearing in mind the seeming ambiguity of the ‘quick look of surprise’ he gave Mrs Barrington when she drew attention to the resemblance between the two faces, it would be easy to misconstrue the artist's motives in thus capturing Walker's face. It is, however, a transposition which, if anything, serves to highlight Leighton's own sexual ambivalence; more to the point in this instance is the fact that the artist probably found in Walker's looks an ideal beauty which exactly fulfilled the conditions for creating the aesthetic effect he sought.

Two of the three surviving preliminary drawings for the painting emphasize both the characteristically meticulous preparation that went into Leighton's pictures and also, here, his particular preoccupation with the effect that line and form - especially in relation to the pose of the principal figure - would have on the viewer. A sheet of five studies for the girl's hands, undoubtedly taken from life (British Museum, Department of Prints and Drawings 1897.5.12.16) shows Leighton noting the slightest variations in the placing of the fingers in poses which remain essentially the same. A second drawing, in chalk and pencil on blue paper just over half the size of the finished painting (Leighton House Collection no.834; repr. Ormond, pl.82) shows the completed composition ready for transfer to the canvas. The architectural elements and their perspective are precise enough to have been drawn with the aid of a T-square and set-square on a drawing board; similarly, the relief moulding on the well-head looks as though it was drawn with a pair of compasses. This same precision can be seen in the under-drawing on the canvas. A grid of thirty-two rectangles, each 2 7/8 × 3 1/2 in. (7.35 × 9 cm.) was superimposed on the design in order to facilitate its enlargement onto the canvas; its presence, with the junction of the vertical and horizontal axes at the exact centre of the girl's trunk, and her limbs subtly placed along these horizontals and verticals, reinforces the devices Leighton used to enhance a sense of repose. This effect was clearly in Leighton's mind when, in referring to the receding figure in the background, he wrote that ‘the tallness of said figure was inseperable from the sentiment of it in my mind’.

Leighton's first, tentative, title for the painting seems to have been ‘The Listener’ and it was probably still known as this when he held a private view in his studio at the end of March and the beginning of April 1861 - that is, just before sending-in days at the Academy on 8 and 9 April. One result of this private showing - attended by friends and critics - was that the picture was given a new title, perhaps with some prompting from the artist, proposed by the wife of his friend Ralph Benson who visited the studio on 31 March. The following day Benson wrote to Leighton: ‘For the beauty at the fountain I once thought the best title might be some couplet like the following:-

“So tranced and still half-dreamed she, and half-heard
The splash of fountain and the song of bird.”

But my wife, from my description of the picture suggested a name better suited to the “suggestiveness” of the work: “Lieder ohne Worte”: don't you think it rather pretty?’ Coinciding exactly as it did with his original conception, Leighton adopted the new title immediately. He was also undoubtedly aware that his audience would inevitably at first see some association between the picture and Felix Mendelssohn's forty-eight short piano pieces, composed between 1829 and 1845 and also called Lieder ohne Worte. Well-known in England under the title of Songs without Words, these graceful and thoughtful miniatures had a considerable popularity during the nineteenth century and particularly, it would seem, during the 1860s. It must have been Mendelssohn's music which inspired Mrs Benson's choice and Leighton must have known that it could only help the picture's chance of being noticed when it was hung in the Academy exhibition. The specifically musical connotations must also have appealed to the music-loving artist - he had already dealt with a musical theme in his earlier ‘Triumph of Music’ (R.A. 1856) and both ‘Rustic Music’ and ‘Duett’ can be seen as directly related to ‘Lieder’ in this sense apart from their common link with John Hanson Walker. Specific comparisons with the work of Whistler at this time are also obvious and his exploration of similar ideas in, for example, ‘At the Piano’ (R.A. 1860), ‘Harmony in Green and Rose: The Music Room’ of c. 1860–1 - part of which Whistler had altered at Leighton's suggestion - or ‘Symphony in White No.1’ (1862) runs parallel with Leighton's.

Leighton regarded his private view as a great success, with his ‘little girl at the fountain’, as he described it, proving the most popular of the six works intended for the Royal Academy exhibition. He obviously used the private showing as an opportunity to explain what his intentions were - in this and other pictures - to a sympathetic audience. Evidence of this is to be found in his complaint about what one critic later wrote, that ‘what he says in interpretation... is so verbatim what I said myself to those who visited my studio, that I suspect he must have been of that number’. The anonymous critic to whom Leighton was referring praised ‘Lieder’ in his review of the exhibition in Macmillan's Magazine, as one which ‘must carry off the crown of praise from those who look for the noble faculty of poetic imagination’ and continued in terms which are, in part at least, unmistakably Leighton's: ‘he has not encumbered his representations with anything that is definite or positive in costume or accessories;... There is nothing to tell that the fair young girl who sits before us, lost in a dream, is of Roman, Egyptian, Grecian, or Mediaeval 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. We might as well attempt to analyze her thoughts as to decide where was her birthplace, what her name. There she is - fair, soft-eyed, graceful as a fawn, self abandoned, sweet, seated by the bright-running fountain that, with a murmurous gurgle, slowly fills the watervessel she has set down - lost in a blissful dream, while the shrill voice of the bird above cleaves the sleeping air of the sunny afternoon, and the delicate shadows widen over the pavement of marble, the rosy light lies softly upon the alabaster walls, and the tall woman, saffron-vested, bearing the vase upon her head, ascends the steps behind, noiseless, with bare feet, her robe's edge upon the marble stair, passing without a sound to break the reverie of youth and love... Several red, blue and grey vases stand upon the floor, and concentrate with their deep tints the delicacy of the alabaster that forms the background.’

With one exception, all Leighton's pictures were badly hung, above the line, in the Academy exhibition of 1861. It was a great disappointment to the artist because it was a repetition of the treatment he had received in previous years and also because, as he wrote to his mother, it made it ‘impossible to see the finish or delicacy of execution which is an important feature in them.’ The affront was felt keenly by Leighton, and by his friends and some critics, particularly in the case of ‘Lieder ohne Worte’ which seems to have attracted most attention - as it had done earlier in the artist's studio. The writer of the exhibition review in the Art Journal made a point of referring to the ‘considerable talk in artistic and literary circles... because of some vague and floating ideas about these pictures having been sacrificed by the hanging committee’. That there was a considerable amount of gossip about this is certain: D. G. Rossetti, writing to William Allingham on 10 May 1861, complained that ‘Leighton might... have made a burst, had his pictures not been very ill-placed mostly-indeed one of them (the only very good one, Lieder ohne Worte) is the only instance of a very striking unfairness in the place ...’. The young painter Henry Stacy Marks, writing in The Spectator, repeated this sentiment: ‘the hangers have not been guilty of a crueller act this year than that of placing this beautiful picture at a height where its merits can be only partially seen’ and the reviewer in The Critic of 11 May, whilst complimenting the Academy on the way in which the exhibition had been hung, singled out the treatment given to Leighton as evidently arising from ‘malice prepense and in obvious defiance of the artist's reputation and high intrinsic claims’.

In view of the Academy's bias at this period toward subject painting, it is not surprising that the aesthetic and decorative qualities of ‘Lieder ohne Worte’ were ignored and the picture denied a good place. Despite these unfavourable circumstances, the work did receive favourable reviews, with only the Art Journal outspoken in its condemnation of the ‘mere decorative ornamentation’ of what was described as ‘the well-laboured study for some extensive piece of mural decoration, whose exhibition is wholly out of place in the Royal Academy...’ At least two critics were mentioned by Leighton as having visited his private view and it was probably these two - Tom Taylor and F. G. Stephens - who, with their close knowledge of the painting, and writing, respectively, in The Times and The Athenaeum, were able to offer Leighton some public encouragement. The Times thought that ‘the picture is one that wins more and more upon the eye and the imagination the more it is studied. It is Mr Leighton's best work this year’. The Athenaeum concluded a long and sympathetic description of the painting with the statement that ‘the exquisite and ineffable ideality of indolent lotus-eating was never more perfectly expressed than in this work’.

Stacy Marks, writing in The Spectator, was the only critic who commented on the frame of ‘Lieder ohne Worte’, nothing that ‘the pure taste and inventiveness which it displays would almost imply that the painter had a hand in its design’. This would indeed seem to be the case. On the frame's inner margin, a series of arch-like semi-circles, modelled in relief with a slight concave section, each with a roundel, or boss, at its centre, echoes the decorative parapet on the wall of the courtyard in which the girl is sitting. The leaf-like pattern which occupies the middle of the frame's width - its dark blue perhaps stencilled on the gilded gesso-seems to recall the pattern of intertwined herons and song-birds which decorate the well-head. It was entirely in keeping with Leighton's thoughts about the overall impact the picture should have, that he clearly considered its frame as directly complementing the image on the canvas.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1978-80: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1981

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