Leighton was one of the most renowned artists in Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century. He parlayed his innate talent and cosmopolitan education into a style of consummate refinement that marked all his undertakings: paintings, sculpture, the decoration of his magnificent home in London, and even his service as the President of the Royal Academy of Arts, a position to which he was elected in 1878. The academy was then the preeminent artistic institution in Britain, and Leighton’s ascension to the position of president crowned his status as a leading light of the Victorian art world. He held the role until the year of his death in 1896. Leighton championed the classical revival in British art, which sought inspiration in the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome as the epitome of beauty and sophistication. His work is also allied to the ideals of Aestheticism, which emphasized the purely visual appeal of a work of art over narrative or moral content.The Painting:
Leighton made this study in preparation for a monumental painting depicting the ancient Greek and Roman myth of Persephone, which he exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in May 1891 (see fig. 1 above). Persephone, the goddess of vegetation, was condemned to spend part of each year in the underworld, among the dead, as the unwilling queen of the god Hades. At the end of this purgatory, she ascended to the upper world and was reunited with her mother, Demeter, the goddess of harvest and agriculture. Their reconciliation symbolized fertility and rebirth, and was associated with the changing of the seasons.
At the right, Persephone’s pallid form rises from the underworld. Her head is flung back and her arms are extended upward as her peach, light pink, and olive-green draperies stream around her. She is supported by Hermes, the messenger of the gods, wearing a blue cloak and his trademark winged hat. In his proper right hand, he holds another of his attributes, the caduceus, a winged staff intertwined with two snakes. At the left is Demeter, attired in billowing orange and reddish-brown robes. She stands at the brink of the underworld, her arms spread wide to welcome her daughter. Behind Demeter, patches of bright blue sky are visible amongst glowing, pink-tinted clouds. The poses, palette, and setting are very close to the final painting, and a number of key details are present (such as the spray of almond blossom at Demeter’s feet, and Hermes’s caduceus and red-winged hat), indicating that the study was made at an advanced stage of the composition. The frame appears to be the original.
Working with great panache, and using very few strokes of the brush, Leighton delineated the essential arrangements of pose, drapery, color, and light, that convey the pathos and urgency of the scene. His ingenuity is encapsulated by the expressive power of Persephone’s pale, limp body as she reaches toward the sky and Demeter’s outstretched arms. Demeter’s swirling robes echo the color of the terrain, emphasizing the symbolic embrace of “mother earth.” Robes of the same hues notably reappear as emblems of warmth and sensuality in Leighton’s iconic Flaming June
(1895, Museu de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico). The warm blue sky and the sprig of almond blossom in the present painting herald the rejuvenation of Persephone and the Earth alike. Such was Leighton’s mastery of his expressive means that no knowledge of the narrative is needed to intuit the joy and relief of Demeter and Persephone as they meet each other.
The study also makes clear Leighton’s vivid evocation of the dialectic at the heart of the myth. He stages the reunion of mother and daughter as a juxtaposition of complementary contrasts—sunlight and darkness, sky and earth, vitality and weakness, fertility and barrenness, and, ultimately, life and death. The motif of a return to warmth, light, and comfort may have had particular resonance as Leighton worked on The Return of Persephone
during what he called the “fiendish” winter of 1890–91, which was marked by viciously cold and dismal weather that brought misery and danger to many in Britain. The message of the painting is ultimately an uplifting one: the enduring triumph of love over peril and despair.Provenance:
The study’s first owner was the banker (James) Stewart Hodgson (1827–1899), who owned a number of works by Leighton, including Lieder ohne worte
(1860–61, Tate, London), two decorative friezes on the subjects of Music
(ca. 1881–83 and ca. 1883–85, respectively; both Leighton House Museum, London), and a preparatory oil study for the ceiling of the music room in the mansion of American Henry G. Marquand (The Met, 2021.10.2
) which, like the present work, was bequeathed to The Met by curator James David Draper. The Museum also owns a preparatory drawing for Music
(The Met, 2016.62
Alison Hokanson 2021
 This entry is indebted to the explication of the final version of The Return of Persephone
that appears in Stephen Jones et al., Frederic Leighton 1830–1896
, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1996, pp. 215–16.
 Quoted in Jones et al. 1996, p. 216.