Flaming June. Even if you don’t know the name, you certainly know the painting. A young woman in a sheer bright-orange dress, sound asleep on a marble bench, the glistening sea stretching out behind her. Today the work by Frederic Leighton is considered a classic of Victorian art and has joined a shortlist of iconic masterpieces like The Kiss and Girl With a Pearl Earring as a touch point in the popular consciousness. But as recently as the 1960s, Flaming June was considered garbage, languishing unsalable in a junk shop in south London.
The story — almost certainly exaggerated — goes that in 1962, a laborer walked into a neighborhood shop looking to hock a painting he had found hidden in a chimney at a local building site. The painting was in an elaborate gilt frame, and the builder got what he thought was a good price for it: £60.
The shop owner must have quickly come to believe that he had gotten a raw deal. The painting just wouldn’t sell. The art world was in the throes of a love affair with modernism and pop art, and Victorian art was considered almost pitifully uncool. The cognoscenti found Victorian art prudish and sentimental, although Flaming June is at least deceptively erotic — that long thigh must have given the Victorians fainting fits.
No one would have imagined that Flaming June would become something of a redeemer for Victorian art and would, in less than two decades, be counted among the most famous paintings in the world. As the BBC recently put it, “Flaming June has become a celebrity in its own right.”
The owner eventually resorted to selling the frame to recoup some of his losses, resigning himself to the fact that no one would ever buy a painting of a sleeping girl in an apricot dress. But then Jeremy Maas came along, one of the few art dealers left in the U.K. who stilled believed in Victorian art’s potential. Maas believed he had something special on his hands. Unfortunately, no one else in London’s art world agreed with him. He offered Flaming June to major galleries all over the city, but each turned him down.
Eventually, he found one man willing to buy, Luis A. Ferré, a Latin-American industrialist looking to set up a new museum in Puerto Rico. Maas sold him the painting for £2,000, a tidy profit, but a pittance for what in a matter of years would come to be considered a masterpiece, with an international tourist draw.
Flaming June was such a hit with museum goers, prints of the painting started selling all over the world, with its likeness eventually appearing on everything from T-shirts to mugs. By the next decade, it was making more in annual reproduction royalties alone than Maas had sold the original for. In 2013, Jessica Chastain appeared on the cover of Vogue posed as Flaming June. And this month, Flaming June has returned home to London for the first time — on loan from the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Ponce, Puerto Rico — where it’s now on display at the studio of the man who painted it. The exhibition at the Leighton House Museum, “Flaming June: The Making of an Icon” runs through April 2.
According to Daniel Robbins, senior curator of the Leighton House Museum, who was interviewed by the BBC, when Leighton painted June at the very end of his life, “He had no idea he’d done something people would forever associate with him.”