Sun and Moon Flowers is an example of what Cosmo Monkhouse once described as "Mr. Leslie's later work, which has kept before us constant visions of the innocent beauty and unsophisticated elegance of English girls," but which the art critic himself evidently considered somewhat lacking in the kind of "intellectual effort and [interestingly!] manual labour" that went into earlier works like Leah [Matilda -, Canto 28] (69), which, Monkhouse tells us, was exhibited in 1860.
Yet the composition here is a deeply thoughtful one. There is a perfect balance of vertical and horizontal lines, as reflected in the paneling as well as the half-open window and shadows on the blind; and a concomitant sense of harmony between the young women creating an indoor floral arrangement, and the gardens outside, where roses bloom as if to make a natural bouquet of their own. The harmony extends to the blue and white palette of the garments and vases against the structural white and brown of their background, with the yellow highlights which tell us that this is really the height of summer. The young women too are blooming, and in their prime.
There is still a good deal of Pre-Raphaelite detail here (presumably what Monkhouse means by "manual labour"), in the garments, vases, sunflower petals and roses. Despite Monkhouse's dismissal of Leslie's later work, the curators at the Guildhall have found this to be one of the most popular paintings in their newly-curated display. One reason suggested by Julia Dudkiewicz, the gallery's Principal Curator who was responsible for the choice of exhibits, may be that the late Victorian interest in "the house beautiful" has begun to result in a complete change from what we think of as a Victorian room (i.e. one with rich designs on wall and floor coverings, and clutter of all kinds). By around this time, with "the gradual separation of workplace from residence" (Cohen 89), women were taking over the decoration of the house from men, and using it as a stage on which to project their own personalities. Compare what we can see in this picture with Mrs Rate's light and airy panelled room in Milton Court, Surrey. At least in some cases, the claustrophobia of earlier times has already gone, to let in what is truly a breath of fresh air.
The blue patterned vases themselves reflect the fashion of these years (see Cohen 116), as indeed do the sunflowers, used as motifs in both the Arts and Crafts Movement and in the Aesthetic Movement — for which the colour yellow itself had particular significance. The moon flowers of the title may also have a fin-de-siècle resonance. White, scented, night-flowering, they feature in an 1895 illustration by Laurence Housman (1865-1959), and may suggest the seductive power of the female beauty on display.
Commentary by Dennis T. Lanigan
This painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1889, no. 266. It again was very much influenced by the Aesthetic Movement, particularly the work of Albert Moore, similar to Leslie's earlier Pot-Pourri of 1874. Like the earlier work it features beautiful young women in a domestic environment clad in eighteenth-century costumes. Their free-flowing dresses are much closer to "Aesthetic" dress than the usual Victorian fashion featuring tight lacing and bustles. The sunflowers the young women are arranging in a vase were prominent motifs associated with the Aesthetic Movement, as were the blue and white china depicted, which was part of the "acute chinamania" of the period. The vases depicted, however, appear to be European reproductions in the Chinese style rather than the original examples that would have been collected by Aesthetic Movement artists like D. G. Rossetti and J. M. Whistler. The sunflowers may perhaps have been intended to symbolise devotion to art.
G. K. Chesterton reports that the picture was painted in the drawing room of Leslie's house at Wallingford On Thames. The window there provided a view overlooking the garden with its rose bushes and showing the green meadow on the opposite bank. Chesterton quotes Leslie as saying,
"I arranged the two girls ... by the window. One is seated on a stool on the ground, and the other is on the seat of the deeply recessed window. The whole was painted direct from nature." A young lady friend posed for one of the figures, while "the other is from Kitty Lambert, a favourite model of mine. The two girls are arranging sunflowers in a vase. In the picture some of the sunflowers are the usual bright yellow ones, and others, which I call moonflowers, are far paler. It is painted on canvas, very simply, and when 1 last saw it was in a perfectly sound condition." 
Although Leslie claims the "moonflowers" are the paler blooms in the girls' arrangements the title's "moonflowers" may actually refer to the two young women depicted.
Despite the obvious beauty of this work it was largely ignored by the critics with the exception of F. G. Stephens who was impressed enough to discuss it three times in The Athenaeum in 1889. The first was in his "Fine-Art Gossip" prior to Leslie's three pictures for the year being exhibited at the Royal Academy: "The second picture is a small square one, and represents an old-fashioned window-seat with two girls, one of whom is arranging sunflowers in vases. The window is open and looks upon a very sunny garden. It will probably be called Sun and Moon Flowers. Some of the blossoms are of that lovely and pale sort known in Berkshire as 'moon-flowers.' The picture is mostly blue and yellow, the blue being very much subdued" (446). When it was exhibited Stephens sparingly described it as: "The Sun and Moon Flowers (266) of Mr. G. D. Leslie, two fair English damsels in a bright chamber, shaded from the sun, is a charming exercise in dark blue and warm white" (572). Stephens then gave it a more extensive review in his Third Notice of the Royal Academy exhibition:
The charming Sun and Moon Flowers (266) of Mr. G. D. Leslie we mentioned in general terms some months ago. Every one will admire its delicacy, sobriety, and modesty, its broad harmonies of light and colour, and the graceful freshness of the healthy English girls who sit in a room shaded from the bright sun which blazes without. The spontaneity and grace of the attitudes commend themselves to the spectator, who will not fail to appreciate the warm glow and soft effect, the clearness and propriety of the highly original chiaroscuro of the painter, and the fitness of the flesh tones to match the blue and white dresses. 
- Victorians to the Life: The Guildhall Art Gallery's New Display of Victorian Paintings (review in 2015)
- Commentary on Leslie's Matilda -, Canto 28
- The Flower Room, Milton Court, Surrey, c.1875
- Review of Deborah Cohen's Household Gods
- Furniture Becomes Lighter Again
- The Boom in Yellow
Chesterton, G. K. Introduction and Descriptive Notes. Famous Paintings: Selected from the World's Great Galleries and Reproduced in Colour. London: Cassell, n.d. Internet Archive, from the Digital Library of India. Web. 10 August 2023.
Cohen, Deborah. Household Gods: The British and Their Possessions. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006. (For the idea of "Home as a Stage," see Chapter 5).
Monkhouse, Cosmo. "A Pre-Raphaelite Collection." Magazine of Art. 6 (November 1882-October 1883): 62-70. Internet Archive version of a copy in the University of Toronto Library. Web. 30 January 2015.
Stephens, Frederic George. "Fine-Art Gossip." The Athenaeum No. 3206 (6 April 1889): 446-47.
Stephens, Frederic George. "Fine Arts. The Royal Academy." The Athenaeum No. 3210 (4 May 1889): 572-74.
Stephens, Frederic George. "Fine Arts. The Royal Academy." The Athenaeum No. 3214 (1 June 1889): 700-02.
Created 30 January 2015
Commentary by Dennis T Lanigan, 10 August 2023