Elijah in the Wilderness

Frederic Leighton1877/1878

Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

The Old Testament prophet Elijah is fleeing from his great enemy Queen Jezebel, who has vowed to have him killed. Here, he has fallen asleep in the wilderness having asked for death; an angel from God, however, brings him bread and water. The story of Elijah and Jezebel was favoured by the artist for its dramatic possibilities and there is a magnificent contrast between the superbly muscled but prone body of Elijah and the tender but upright figure of the angel, whose wings are just closing as he lands to bring the prophet back to life. More striking still is the way the artist has caught the solemn grandeur of the occasion - a turning point in the prophet’s life - while preserving the intimacy of a very human mercy mission. This painting was commissioned by a St. Helens chemical manufacturer, A G Kurtz, who wanted the newly founded Walker Art Gallery to have a contemporary picture of international importance.

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  • Title: Elijah in the Wilderness
  • Creator: Frederic, Lord Leighton
  • Date Created: 1877/1878
  • Physical Dimensions: w2104 x h2343 mm (Without frame)
  • Artist biographical information: Frederic Leighton was born the son of a wealthy doctor in Scarborough but spent much of his early life on the continent, where he trained as an artist, in Florence, Brussels, Frankfurt and Paris. At the age of 25 one of his pictures, exhibited at the Royal Academy, was bought by Queen Victoria. This purchase immediately established his reputation and launched him on a career of spectacular success. Within less than ten years he became an Associate of the Royal Academy, in 1868 he became a full member and in 1878 he was elected President of the Royal Academy and Knighted in the same year. Leighton’s work did not meet with universal approval. The painter, Whistler described Leighton’s work as ‘cosmetic’; ‘bloodless’ was another description. Leighton lived in an extraordinary, purpose-built house on the edge of Holland Park, London. The house had only one bedroom but a large studio and gallery. The principal feature of the house, which still stands and is open to the public, is the Arab Hall which is decorated with a huge collection of North African and Middle Eastern tiles. Leighton was fluent in several languages and an inspirational speaker. He received doctorates from the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Durham and Dublin. He was created a baronet in 1886 and elevated to the peerage on 24 January 1896. He is the only artist to receive this honour. He died the following day. When Kurtz visited Leighton in his studio he noted that the house resembled a museum and seemed extremely uncomfortable. However, he wrote of Leighton in his diary that ‘he lives in the beautiful which is a necessity of his existence’. Kurtz saw studies and sketches for the picture, and there were also, small models of the figures.
  • Additional artwork information: This painting was the subject of an ‘Artwork Highlight’ talk at the Walker Art Gallery in 2007. To read the notes from this talk please follow this link: http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/picture-of-month/displaypicture.asp?venue=2&id=335 To learn more about this artist follow this link to the Walker’s online feature: http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/online/featuredartists/leighton/
  • Type: Oil on canvas
  • Rights: Presented by A G Kurtz in 1879