History often buries the important sexual facets of artists and writers. Sir Frederick Leighton left a few clues.
The systematic destruction of LGBT art and history has been going on for as long as men and women have had same-sex relationships. Historians often disregard the gay elements of a subject's life as irrelevant — but irrelevant to whom?
Sappho wrote love poems to women that historians say were misinterpreted. Men create ravishing works of art depicting the male nude, and it gets justified as representing an "ideal" rather than the desired.
But no matter how many religious denialists try to deny and destroy LGBT culture, it persists. Perhaps that is why so often the Victorian artists chose classic mythological figures. So many gods from the classic world were casually bisexual — as well as winged, hoofed, horned, and superhumanly strong and beautiful.
Painted with oils on a 47-by-47-inch square canvas, Flaming June is widely considered to be Leighton's magnum opus, showing his classicist nature. It is thought that the woman portrayed alludes to the figures of sleeping nymphs and naiads the Greeks often sculpted. The (toxic) oleander branch at top right symbolizes the fragile link between sleep and death.
When he returned to finally settle in England in 1860, he was viewed suspiciously as not quite British. He spoke a few languages and had the sophisticated viewpoint and tastes of a world traveler.
Leighton remained a bachelor for his entire life. There were rumors of a child born out of wedlock with one of his favorite female models, and of several very close male companions. But his family wealth and social status kept him at a distance from any scandal.
He was the most successful of the Victorian painters, having sold one of his early works to Queen Victoria and having been the first artist to receive peerage. Unfortunately his baronetcy was short-lived, as he died the following day of angina pectoris.
He was friends with Ingres, Corot, and Millet. George Bernard Shaw was said to have based the sexually ambiguous Henry Higgins of Pygmalion on him. Although he was considered a classic salon painter, influences from the symbolists, the Pre-Raphaelites, and the aesthetes can be seen in his work.
His house in Holland Park, London, has been turned into a museum, the Leighton House Museum. It contains a number of his drawings and paintings as well as some of his sculptures (including An Athlete Wrestling With a Python). The house also features many of Leighton's inspirations, including his collection of Iznik tiles. Its centerpiece is the magnificent Arab Hall. But for all the lavish decoration of his home, his bedroom was small and plain, with a single bed.
He left no diaries, and no male model received a surprising endowment from his estate upon his death. But his artwork tells of a deeply sensual man who enjoyed the refined beauties of both the male and the female form.
Sir Richard Burton’s wife destroyed the manuscript he was working on at his death, supposedly a massive study of homosexuality in the form of an annotated translation of Sheikh Nefzawi’s Perfumed Garden.
The prophet Elijah is fleeing from Jezebel who is determined to kill him. In this painting he is asleep in the wilderness and an angel from God is bringing him bread and water. The angel seems to have just landed. His splendid wings are still extended. The prophet, his magnificently muscled body contrasting with the fluttering draperies of the angel, sleeps on as the angel looks down on him.