Mr Leighton, 37, is curator of 19th-century painting at the National Gallery and studied at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. He will take up his new post next year. He will be the first foreigner to run the prestigious museum, and even though everyone employed at the museum speaks English, he will be taking a course in Dutch.
Mr Leighton, who was born in Belfast, attracted international acclaim for some of the exhibitions he has curated, most notably "Degas: Beyond Impressionism", this summer. He also became very involved in the National Gallery's educational programme on his areas of special interest, Impressionism and Post-impressionism. He was one of the authors of the award-winning catalogue Art In The Making: Impressionism.
Under the curatorship that he has held for the last 10 years, the gallery has pursued a policy of expanding its 19th-century collection, and major works by Cezanne, Monet, Friedrich and David have been acquired. Mr Leighton was also instrumental in negotiating the the loan of the Berggruen Collection of 90 works by late 19th-century and early 20th-century artists.
One member of the Van Gogh Museum supervisory board, Truze Lodder, said yesterday: "Mr Leighton has broad experience, vision and expertise. We were particularly impressed with his vision in the area of education, which is something that needs developing at the museum, and in museums in Holland generally."
Mr Leighton is married to Gillian Keay who is the paintings conservator at the Guildhall Gallery in the City of London. They have two children.
The director of the National Gallery, Neil MacGregor, commented: "We are all delighted and honoured that John Leighton has been chosen as director of this famous European museum. His promise as a young curator at the gallery has been triumphantly fulfilled. We are very sorry to lose him but immensely proud of his achievement."Reuse content