Even though Leighton was born in Scarborough, England, he spent most of his childhood abroad. His father received a large inheritance in 1841 and was able to take the family on travels to France, Germany, Belgium, and Italy.
When Leighton turned fifteen, he decided that he wanted to be an artist. He spent the following years studying in Germany, Italy, and Holland.
Leighton wanted to become known as England's best painter, not an easy task. He submitted Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna to the Royal Academy in 1855. He took advantage of the paintings enormous size (87 1/2 x 205 inches) and noted, "One thing is certain, they can't hang it out of sight - it's too large for that."
The painting turned out to be a wonderful success. Everyone was wondering who this young, unknown artist was, even Queen Victoria. Later she wrote, "it is a beautiful painting...so bright and full of lights. Albert was enchanted with it, so much that he made me buy it." John Ruskin, England's leading art critic, associated some of the painting's qualities with the newly emerging ideals of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Leighton was thrilled by the huge success of Cimabue's Madonna but intimidated by what he would produce next.
While studying in Rome, Leighton met William Bouguereau. It is believed that Bouguereau influenced Leighton's painting The Fisherman. He also became friends with the poet Robert Browning.
Leighton moved to London in 1859 and painted many portraits to earn his living. He was disappointed by many things in London. He was especially discouraged by the way his paintings were hung at the Royal Academy exhibits. (Paintings were usually crowded together and hung from eye level clear too the ceiling; making it difficult to get a good view of many paintings.)
Finally he had another success with his painting, Sisters. This painting was well hung at an exhibition, and the Victorian people were drawn to its charm. Leighton gradually began to learn that decorative paintings went better with the public than more serious paintings. Deciding not to cater to public tastes, but to expand his own repertoire, Leighton turned to Biblical subjects.
When he exhibited Golden Hours, he was finally elected as an associate member to the Royal Academy. Leighton had been waiting for years to join the Academy, but it was a bitter success. Many of his fellow members were quite hostile with him because he was not content with just portraiture and landscapes.
Leighton next studied classical art, hoping to associate himself with the dignity and grace of that era while moving forward into the modern period. In 1878 he became president of the Royal Academy and became the center of London's cultural society.
In 1896, Leighton became a baron. After suffering with angina for many years, he died in 1897.