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: Jonathan’s Token to David


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Jonathan's Token to David (figure 1)1 is one of Frederic Leighton's most sumptuous and impressive figure paintings from the decade of the 1860s. It belongs to a period when he was painting almost nothing but classical subjects, and it reflects the same formal and decorative qualities. Without a title it is doubtful if one would guess that the subject of the picture is Jonathan. The poignant implications of the latter's last meeting with David are passed over for a vision of male beauty and grace.Jonathan's Token to David, like most of Leighton's biblical paintings, is an illustration of the Old, rather than the New, Testament, and it represents an essentially masculine world. Both The Times and the Illustrated London News use the adjective “manly” when describing it, the former calling it “a composition of heroic scale and style, firmly and knowingly drawn.”2 This masculine quality as a biblical painter distinguishes Leighton from his contemporaries in England and from the German schools in which he was trained. At the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt, the young Leighton had certainly been directed towards the Bible as a subject. It was much favored by the Nazarene School, which had so deeply influenced his master, Edward von Steinle. On the other hand, Steinle was once described as a painter of Madonnas, and the German artists of the nineteenth century in general preferred New Testament subjects. Where Old Testament subjects were treated, they tended to be those with feminine interest, Jacob and Rachel, Adam and Eve, Hagar and Ishmael, and Eliezer and Rebecca at the well.A notable exception is the series of works concerned with the lives of David, Moses and Jacob, which were designed in 1839 by Alfred Rethel, another artist active in Frankfurt. Leighton was also attracted to these subjects, and during his career he painted several Old Testament subjects, among them Gehazi Dismissed by the Prophet Elisha of 1858 (untraced), David of 1865 (showing the king in old age) (untraced), Elijah in the Wilderness of 1879 (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), and Elisha Raising the Son of the Shunammite of 1881 (Leighton House, London). It is significant that where he did introduce female figures into his biblical paintings, he chose Salomé, Delilah and Jezebel, three of the destroyers and betrayers. Writing to the Dalziel Brothers in 1863, about subjects which he would like to illustrate in their projected Bible Gallery (finally published 1881), Leighton singled out the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, subjects from the lives of Samson and Elijah, Moses viewing the promised land, Abraham and the Angel, and David's charge to Solomon. Among the completed designs for the Bible, Leighton's are exceptional in retaining the stern mood of the Old Testament.Jonathan's Token to David belonged to, and was apparently commissioned by, John Wardell, a collector from Dublin.3 This may explain why it was painted at a time when Leighton had largely abandoned religious subjects. According to the reviewer of the Illustrated London News, it was said to have been painted as a pair to G. F. Watts' Meeting of Jacob and Esau,4 which appeared at the same Academy. Further investigation proved that the Watts' had indeed belonged to Wardell, being sold from his collection at Christie's on May 29, 1880 (lot 62). The picture reproduced here (figure 2), which remained with the artist, is apparently a smaller, secondary version, although described by Mrs. Watts as the original.5 Watts and Leighton were old and intimate friends, and they had collaborated on a number of schemes in the past. There was nothing strange, therefore, in commissioning a pair of biblical paintings from them, and, as contrasting subjects, Jacob and Esau and Jonathan and David work perfectly well, the first a meeting, the second a parting. The result, however, can scarcely have been what Wardell intended. While Watts shows the two brothers embracing in a moving and powerful design, Leighton excludes David altogether and does not even hint at the emotional climax that is to follow.The story of Jonathan's last meeting with David is one of the great moments in the Bible. David is in hiding from the wrath of Saul, and Jonathan, by pre-arrangement, goes to his hiding-place by the rock of Ezel to shoot three arrows as a signal to David either to come out or to flee. Jonathan calls out to the lad, who runs to collect the arrows, that they are beyond him, thus indicating to David that Saul intends to kill him. Jonathan then sends the lad away, and he and David fall on each other's necks.This last scene occurs occasionally in biblical painting, although it is not one of the most popular scenes from the life of David. Its human appeal captured the imagination of Rembrandt, and it is the subject of a memorable painting by him (Hermitage Museum, Leningrad) and several drawings; there are also related drawings by members of his school. Other examples include a late sixteenth-century Brussels tapestry in Vienna (Kunsthistorisches Museum), which is part of a David cycle, a rococo painting by Ruik Keyert (Leeuwarden Municipal Record Office), and a notable Bible illustration by Schnorr von Carolsfeld.6 There are a few works which combine the scene of Jonathan shooting the arrows with the subsequent meeting, and in one of these Jonathan is shown prominently in the foreground (figure 3). But there is no iconographical precedent for Leighton's representation of Jonathan preparing to shoot his arrows with the lad beside him.There are various explanations for Leighton's reluctance to tackle the central incident of the story. In the first place he was temperamentally unsuited to scenes of passion, and there may have been some instinctive reluctance to show two men embracing as lovers. The comparative failure of his earlier pictures Paolo and Francesca of 1861 (Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad), and Orpheus and Eurydice of 1864 (Leighton House, London), certainly suggests that he might have had difficulty in making such a scene emotionally convincing. In any case, by the late 1860s Leighton was preoccupied with formal and aesthetic ideas, and relatively few of his pictures depict scenes of dramatic action. His first important classical painting, The Syracusan Bride (James Lamantia), exhibited in 1866, shows a procession of beautiful women in graceful attitudes, and it is basically decorative in intention. It was followed at the Academy in 1867 by Venus Disrobing (J. S. Maas & Co), the first of his important nudes couched in the language of high art. In the year of Jonathan's Token to David (1868), Leighton exhibited a second nude, Actaea, the Nymph of the Shore (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa), a recumbent Ariadne (Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad), based on a classical prototype and an idyllic picture of lovers, Acme and Septimius (untraced), again classical in inspiration.Jonathan's Token to David celebrates male beauty in a consciously statuesque and formal style. The pose of Jonathan derives from the famous David by Michelangelo (figure 4), an artist on whom Leighton leaned heavily throughout his career. This accounts for the studied, almost mannered attitude of the figure, and the not entirely successful foreshortening of his right arm. The model was no doubt Italian, one of that large colony of attractive Italians who supplied the studios of London artists. The classic features of the head, and the sinuous lines of the figure, express Leighton's ideal of heroic and yet graceful manhood. The little boy is no less consciously studied. The raised foot occurs again in one of the figures for The Arts of Industry as Applied to War (figure 5) and in Leighton's later statue of The Sluggard (1885, Tate Gallery, London).Leighton's attraction to the male figure, taken by some as evidence of homosexual tendencies, is shown in other pictures of this period. Daedalus and Icarus (figure 6) is significant not for its story, but for what it tells us of Leighton's attitude to the human figure. Combining classical form with sumptuous color and a real landscape (in this case a view of Rhodes), it depicts the moment before the tragic climax of the story. The picture is dominated by the nude figure of Icarus, an elegant if slightly limp version of the Apollo Belvedere. Another striking nude of the same date is the unfinished Boy with a Vase Holding a Shield (Royal Institution of Cornwall, Truro), this time based on the Hermes of Praxitiles.It would be easy to over-emphasize the importance of the figures in Jonathan's Token to David at the expense of the landscape and accessories. The picture has an inherent sense of unity and harmony. The beautiful flesh painting, contrasting the darker skin of Jonathan with the extreme whiteness of the lad (as Daedalus is contrasted with Icarus), is matched by the exquisite rendering of accessories for their own sake. Jonathan wears an orange loin cloth, vaguely Eastern in form, a dark sash around his middle, a white garment above with a stunning gold design, almost art nouveau in its intricacy of pattern, a red fillet in his hair, red sandals and a deep purple robe. His quiver has pink hanging tassels, and he holds an elegant bow7 in one hand, while with the other he draws an arrow. The lad is dressed in a leopard skin, and he carries a second dark green quiver with red tassels as a case for the bow. The effect is elegant and aesthetic in the extreme, suggesting some gorgeous piece of fancy-dress, but it makes not even a gesture in the direction of biblical accuracy. Concerned above all with the evocation of a formal and poetic idea, Leighton turns his back on the contemporary trend for painstaking biblical reconstruction.Similarly, the landscape in Jonathan is Mediterranean, not near-Eastern. Like the landscape in Daedalus and Icarus, it was probably worked up from one of the sketches he painted in Rhodes, Greece or Italy on his summer journey of 1867. The huge trees are cypresses, which seem to have had a powerful appeal for the artist, appearing in many of his classical works, often in the context of Hercules' tragedy (figure 7). It is not too much to read into their haunting presence in Jonathan a premonition that this beautiful young man is soon to die. At the base of the trees is a laurel bush (again a classical rather than a biblical reference), and beyond a green plain, distant blue hills and a sky heavy with cumulus clouds.The coloring of the picture is rich and harmonious. The muted greys and greens and browns of the background contrast with the resonant colors of the costumes and accessories. Alternating bands of light and dark contribute to a balanced, rhythmic effect. Leighton had a keen color sense, derived in part from his study of the great Venetians. The Art Journal was right to detect in the picture a “Titianesque grandeur and purpose of colour.”8 Leighton was a passionate admirer of Venetian painting, and its influence is observable in his very earliest pictures. Classical form might be one of Leighton's aims, richness of color and decorative arrangement was certainly another. Like so many of Leighton's paintings, Jonathan's Token to David is an amalgam of academic and more purely contemporary influences. Its reliance on the traditional props of high art should not disguise the fact that its refined and aesthetic mood are original to Leighton, and place him amongst that rare group of Victorian artists for whom classical beauty was a living ideal.Mr. Richard Ormond, Deputy Keeper, National Portrait Gallery, and Leonée Ormond, Lecturer in English Literature, King's College, London University, are the authors of the forthcoming Lord Leighton (Yale University Press, 1975). Mrs. Ormond published George Du Maurier in 1967. Richard Ormond is the author of numerous works on nineteenth-century British painting including John Singer Sargent and National Portrait Gallery: Catalogue of Early Victorian Portraits.Endnotes
  1. Jonathan's Token To David. Provenance: John Wardell of Dublin, his sale, Christie's March 19, 1881 (lot 278), bt. in, and again May 28, 1881 (lot 90) and descended to C. V. D. Wardell; Hartnoll & Eyre (1974); bt. Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Exhibitions: Royal Academy 1868 (227); Hartnoll & Eyre, 1974. References: The Times (May 2, 1868); p. 11; Art Journal (1868), p. 105; Athenaeum, no. 2114 (May 2, 1868), p. 631; Illustrated London News, 52 (May 9, 1868), p. 462; Algernon Swinburne, Essays and Studies (1875), pp. 361-362; Ernest Rhys, Sir Frederic Leighton (1895), pp. 15, 68; Alice Corkran, Frederic Leighton (1904), pp. 62, 185, 200; Mrs. Russell Barrington, The Life, Letters and Work of Frederic Leighton (1906), II, p. 384; Edgcumbe Staley, Lord Leighton (1906), pp. 75, 236; Catalogue 40 Hartnoll & Eyre (1974), no. 31; Leonée and Richard Ormond, Lord Leighton (autumn 1975), p. 159 (no. 178), plate 113.
  2. May 2, 1868, p. 11.
  3. His collection included important seventeenth-century Dutch and Italian pictures and a representative selection of modern British works. It was dispersed after his death, at Christie's, in five sales, May 10 and 12, 1879; May 29, 1880; March 19, 1881; and May 20, 1882. Wardell was a merchant in tea, coffee, sugar and spice. He and his company, Baker, Wardell and Col, are recorded in a Dublin Directory of 1872 (information from G. Slevin, Genealogical Office, Dublin Castle). For Wardell's relations with another artist, see W. J. O'Driscoll, Daniel Maclise (1871), pp. 221-223.
  4. This was based on Watts' woodcut for Dalziel's Bible Gallery of 1862-1863.
  5. Ms. Catalogue of the Works of G. F. Watts (Compton; Watts Gallery). Mrs. Watts was apparently unaware of the Wardell picture. Unfortunately the Wardell sale catalogue does not give sizes, but the picture was probably of similar size to the Leighton.
  6. The Schnorr subject was pointed out to us by Marion Hirschler.
  7. This is a doubly concave bow with a set-back grip, usually called the “Scythian bow.” It lacks the long ears of the typical “Parthian bow,” and appears to be made from one material instead of being of composite construction. It seems unlikely that it was painted from an authentic historical example (information from A. V. B. Norman, Wallace Collection, London).
  8. 1868, p. 105.
Referenced Works of Art
  1. Sir Frederic Leighton
    English, Active 1880-1896
    Jonathan's Token to David
    oil on canvas
    67-1/2 in. x 49 in.
    The John R. Van Derlip Fund
  2. G. F. Watts, c. 1868
    The Meaning of Jacob and Esau
    oil on canvas
    41 in. x 38 in.
    Watts Gallery, Compton
    Apparently a smaller version of the picture exhibited at the Royal Academy, 1868 (920)
  3. Philipp Galle, 1575
    Jonathan and David
    Illustrations from the book
    David, with text by B. Aria, Antwerp, 1575
  4. Michelangelo
    Accadèmia, Florence
    (Photo: Alinari)
  5. Frederic Leighton, c. 1870
    Nude study for one of the figures in The Arts of Industry as Applied to War
    black and white chalk on grey-toned paper
    11-1/2 in. x 8-1/4 in.
    A study for the cartoon of 1870-1872, subsequently painted in fresco, 1878-1880. Cartoon and fresco are both in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
  6. Frederic Leighton, c. 1869
    Daedalus and Icarus
    oil on canvas
    54-3/8 in. x 41-1/8 in.
    Lord Faringdon, Buscot Park
    (Photo: Courtald Institute of Art)
  7. Frederic Leighton, c. 1869-1871
    Hercules Wrestling with Death for the Body of Alcestis
    oil on canvas
    52-1/2 in. x 106 in.
    Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Tannenbaum, Toronto
    (Photo: Royal Academy of Arts)
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Source: Leonée Ormond and Richard Ormond, "Jonathan's Token to David," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 61 (1974): 20-27.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009