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The Sirens Allegory of Inclination, by Artemisia Gentileschi
Leda and the Swan - Passionate Painting
567    Dibyendu Banerjee    29/07/2023

Derived from Greek mythology, the tale of Leda and the swan is perhaps one of the most prevailing subjects in the history of art, which appeared in Greco-Roman art and antiquities, re-emerged during the Renaissance as a recurrent motif in erotic art and is still exploring to this day by contemporary painters and sculptors.

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The story appeared in all complete surviving texts from antiquity, with the likes of the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer to Aeneid by Virgil and Metamorphoses by Ovid, all depicting the intimate relationship of Leda and Zeus, who seduced her in the guise of a swan. Later, the story of Zeus and Leda also became one of the favourite subjects of many eminent painters during the Renaissance and subsequent periods, although the earliest depictions were all in the more private medium of the old masters and mostly from Venice.

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During those days, it was considered more acceptable to depict a woman in the act of copulation with a swan than with a man and the earliest depictions show the pair making love with some explicitness, which is more so than in any depictions of a human pair made by artists of high quality in the same period.

leda and the swan
A copy after a lost painting of Michelangelo
leda and the swan
Leda and the Swan, by François Boucher (France)

Legends say, Zeus, the supreme god of the Greek pantheon was married to Hera, his third immortal wife. But despite being married, he was known for his promiscuity, loved to flirt and frolic with the nymphs and enjoyed their company and had innumerable intimate relationships with both mortals and immortals, bringing forth a plethora of offspring. He was intensely attracted by the beauty of Leda, the queen of Sparta, as the wife of King Tyndareus and the daughter of Thestius, the King of Pleuron in Aetolia, famed for her beautiful black hair and snowy white skin.

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According to many versions of the story, Zeus took the form of a beautiful swan to seduce Leda, portraying himself as a bird escaping from a bird of prey and finally, had sex with her. It is generally held that on the same night, Leda also slept with her husband, resulting in the birth of not one, but two sets of twins. While Helen of Trojan War fame and Polydeuces were the children of Zeus, Castor and Clytemnestra were the children of Tyndareus.

leda and the swan
By Adolph Ulrich Wertmuller (Sweden)
leda and the swan
By François Édouard Picot (France)

Interestingly, an erotic fresco depicting the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan was unearthed at the Pompeii archaeological site. However, although the subject was rarely seen in the large-scale sculpture of antiquity, the degree of consent by Leda to the relationship seems to vary considerably in art. Numerous depictions of the story by Leonardo da Vinci show Leda affectionately embracing the swan, as their children play. Unfortunately, the original works by Leonardo and Michelangelo are missing, but copies are on display in several galleries. It was a well-known myth through the Middle Ages, but emerged more prominently depicted as a classical theme in the Italian Renaissance with erotic overtones.

leda and the swan
Leda and the Swan, by Antonio da Correggio (Italy)

Unfortunately, perhaps the last famous Italian Renaissance elaborate painting of the subject, composed by Antonio da Correggio, was also damaged whilst in the collection of Philippe II, Duke of Orléans by his son Louis, when under the spell of one of the bouts of his periodic crises of conscience about his way of life, he attacked the figure of Leda with a knife. Although the damage was repaired, full restoration to the original condition was not possible.

leda and the swan
The beautifully composed painting of Leda and the Swan by Jean-Léon Gérôme (France)

After a brief fade out following the Renaissance, the theme of Leda and the Swan became popular again in the 19th century with Academic artists, who while painting in the neoclassical style, looked to antiquity and the Renaissance for inspiration, when the theme resurfaced again. A particularly lovely example of painting during the period is the masterly composed painting by the French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme, depicting Leda as a languishing and voluptuous nude welcoming her lover, surrounded by a group of naked cherubs, symbolic of their love and intimacy. In the composition, the mythological anecdote played a secondary role compared to Gérôme’s exploration of female nudity and the focus is more towards the form and grace of the figure, rather than the exploration of any inherent sensuality.

leda and the swan
By Paul Cézanne (France)
leda and the swan
By Oleksa Novakivskyi (Ukraine)

The story of Leda and the Swan still fascinates, enthrals and inspires contemporary artists as well. While Bristol Museum and Art Gallery currently exhibits Karl Weschke's Leda and the Swan, painted in 1986, Irish artist, Genieve Figgis, known for her vibrant colours and ghoulish or macabre imagery, painted her version of Leda and the Swan in 2018, after an earlier work by the French artist François Boucher. Her version of the legendary story reinvents the idyllic romantic scene of lavish playfulness with dark humour, creating a scene of profanity and horror. Recently, Cy Twombly’s abstract version of the story was purchased by Larry Gagosian for an astronomical US $52.9 million at a Christie's May sale 2017.

leda and the swan
Leda and the Swan, by Genieve Figgis (Ireland)
The Sirens Allegory of Inclination, by Artemisia Gentileschi
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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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