See caption
Cymon and Iphigenia by Lord Frederic Leighton
Wikimedia Commons

Cymon and Iphigenia is an undated oil on canvas painting by the English artist Frederic LeightonEnglish painter, knighted in 1878. , 1st Baron Leighton.

Depicting a scene from The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, Leighton opted to introduce an autumnal setting rather than maintain the springtime scenario of the tale.

The painting was first exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 1884. The Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, purchased it at a Christie’s auction in London in 1976.


The overall dimensions of the undated oil on canvas painting are 163 by 328 centimetres (64 by 129 in).[1] Based on Giovanni Boccaccio’s[2] The Decameron, the painting depicts a scene from the first tale of day five; Iphigenia is sleeping in the woods and Cymon, a young nobleman, stands gazing at her beauty which fills him with inspiration.[3] After seeing her, Cymon changes from a badly mannered lout to an ideal polymath.[4] Nahum felt it “emphasised the transforming power of beauty.”[5] Boccaccio set the story in the springtime; Leighton preferred the ambience of a more autumnal feel.[6] The artist was very precise about the mood he wanted to reflect by describing the specific setting of the time of day as “the most mysteriously beautiful in the whole twenty-four hours”.[7] He wished to capture the overall impression of drowsiness just before drifting to sleep especially on long hot days as night begins to fall.[6] The painting is set when there is the “merest lip of the moon” showing on the horizon above the sea and the atmosphere is “haunted still with the flush of the after-glow from the sun already hidden in the west.”[7]

Iphigenia lies with her face and torso pivoted slightly to her right, her arms are raised above her head.[5] Her body is loosely covered by material[6] and the depiction of her figure is described as “masterly” by a writer using the name of “Mentezuma” in his report included in the Art Amateur about the Royal Academy exhibition of 1884.[8] Other sleeping figures are Iphigenia’s servants[6] and a dog.[8] According to Greenhough White, Leighton had the ability to show “the perfection of repose” and the “self-abandonment and unconsciousness of sleep” and it was utilised to full effect in this painting and his earlier work entitled Summer Moon.[9]

Featuring Dorothy DeneEnglish stage actor and a protégé of Frederic Leighton, for whom she modelled for several of his paintings. as the model for Iphigenia, the painting took eight months to complete;[10] a succession of line drawings were done first as Leighton tried to capture the position he wanted for the central figure,[5] around 56 – including several of foliage and other elements of the piece – of these are known to exist.[11] The English art critic Peter Nahum describes the painting as “central among Leighton’s later works”,[5] an opinion Mrs Russell Barrington considered was shared by Leighton.[7] Leighton’s painting Idyll dating from a few years earlier has some similar elements but lacks the complexities of Cymon and Iphigenia. The two compositions each highlight the difference between the fair complexion of a female with a dark-skinned male; both feature a full-length woman reclining beneath a tree and similar lighting techniques are used.[12]

Exhibitions and provenance

The the painting was first exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts was at the summer exhibition in 1884.[1] After viewing it at the exhibition an unnamed French critic reported that he could not recall “a more original effect of light and colour, used in the broad, true, and ideal treatment of lovely forms.”[6] The following year, in 1885, it was exhibited in Berlin.[7] It was again displayed at the Royal Academy in the winter of 1897, a memorial exhibition of his works as Leighton had died on 25 January 1896.[13] It was included in the Guildhall Art Gallery’s annual loan exhibition in 1897. Sir W.E. Cuthbert Quilter owned the painting until it was sold among his art collection in July 1909. It changed ownership a number of times in the UK, with owners including Leopold Albu, and Pamela Cavendish (mother of Hugh Cavendish, Baron Cavendish of Furness), before being purchased at auction by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia, in February 1976. It returned to the Royal Academy from mid-February to April 1996, in an exhibition devoted to the work of Leighton.[1] The Art Gallery of New South Wales also purchased a colour study of the painting, measuring 23.5 by 46.5 centimetres (9.3 by 18.3 in), in 1986.[14]