At first glance, Frederic Leighton (1830-1896), President of the Royal Academy from 1878, and Matthew Ridley Corbet (1850-1902), initially a portrait painter who began exhibiting at the Academy in 1875, did not have much in common. Yet, the two artists were eventually brought together by a shared passion for landscape sketching and the charismatic figure of Giovanni Costa (1827-1903), a rebellious Italian painter who gave rise to the so-called Etruscan School comprising international painters gathered around him in Rome and later at Bocca d’Arno.
Leighton first met Costa in 1853 at Cervara di Roma and from that point on the two remained close friends who embarked on annual sketching expeditions in Italy as well as in England. While Costa, as much as the versatile Italian environs, provided a determining stimulus for the young artist to pursue open-air painting as, in his own words, ‘a sort of discipline’, Leighton had been exposed to this activity already during his student days in the 1840s at the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt under the initial tutorship of Jackob Becker. Over the course of the next five decades, Leighton painted a multitude of locations, environments and atmospheric effects, owing to his extensive and varied annual travels. While his preference remained for the sunlit southern landscapes, which he painted in Italy, Greece, Turkey, Spain, Egypt and Israel, in his later years he became increasingly drawn to the dramatic weather effects and geological formations in Ireland, Scotland and Cornwall.
Many of Leighton’s open-air works feature conspicuously in his studio pictures, in which he sometimes conflated studies from different locations in order to create the impression of more universal, generalised landscapes, perfectly fit for the mythological and symbolical subjects of his figurative works. Although Leighton proudly displayed his open-air works on the walls of his studio, they nonetheless belonged to the category of études, studies of details of nature and not full-fledged exhibitable pictures. The only major display of his oil studies took place at the Royal Society for British Artists in 1895, upon which occasion he admitted that “his passion had always been for landscape”.
Unlike Leighton, Matthew Ridley Corbet’s reputation as a landscapist is well-established, although he initially specialised in portraiture. He trained at the Slade and at the Royal Academy schools under Leighton, who was most likely responsible for introducing the young artist to Costa in the autumn of 1878, while at Perugia. Corbet then joined the circle of international painters forming around the charismatic Italian painter who established them as the Etruscan School around 1885. The group’s paintings of predominantly the Roman Campagna are characterised by a lyrical atmosphere, elongated horizontal format with a panoramic arrangement of planes, and often also a high horizon.
As many painters before him, in the winter of 1878-1879, Corbet sailed up the Nile, studying the mountainous horizons, barren deserts, and ancient temples on the way. His recent contact with Leighton could explain the remarkable closeness of his Egyptian works to those Leighton had painted in the autumn of 1868. Corbet’s dated annotations on the versos of his paintings ascertain the immediacy of the captured effect as much as the skill of this portrait painter, only recently turned landscapist.
During the three-year period when he moved to Italy in 1880, Corbet officially supplanted portraiture for landscape painting under Costa’s direct guidance. In 1891, he married Edith Murch, a fellow member of the group who had been painting with Costa in Rome from the mid-1870s, and whose landscape style reflects the close-knit practice of the Etruscan painters.
We are grateful to Pola Durajska for her assistance in the cataloguing and notes for Lots 153-158 and for her introductory essay. Pola is a freelance art historian. She has completed her doctoral research on the landscape art of Frederic Leighton at the University of York, and is currently preparing an exhibition of the artist’s open-air oil studies for the Leighton House Museum in London.
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