Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Leda and the Swan

Zeus has come to seduce Leda in the form of a beautiful swan.  She will give birth to Helen of Troy, the woman over whom the Trojan War will be fought. In Ancient Greek mythology – and in William Butler Yeats’ poem – Leda's rape is taken as an indirect cause of war. 

The speaker in Yeats’ poem wonders if Leda acquired any of Zeus's knowledge as the swan overpowered her. Did she know she was having sex with a god? She didn't have too long to think about it, because as soon as the swan had gotten what he wanted, he let her fall to the ground as if he couldn't care less.
Leda and the Swan is a long-running theme in the genre of mythological painting.  There are no less than thirty-three known paintings by artists including:

Leonardo da Vinci
Paul Cezanne
Henri Matisse
Salvadore Dali
Cy Twombly

The most famous version was created by Leonardo da Vinci.  My modern interpretation is based upon the composition, color family and size of Leonardo’s lost masterpiece.  

"Leda and the Swan", Oil on Canvas, 28"x40", 2013

Leonardo da Vinci began making studies in 1504 for a "Seated Leda" painting, which was, apparently never executed. All we have are the few sketches and a copy by Giampietrino.  During the second stay at Milan (around 1508) Leonardo finished another version of the subject, this time Leda was standing and wrapped her arms around Zeus in a guise of beautiful swan, while four of their of children (who were Castor, Polux, Helen of Troy and Clytemnestra in original myth) were having their birth from swan-eggs. The painting showed a deep reference to nature study, while the babies were shown in kind of serpenticle poses as the true baby birds are in that pose while breaking out of egg-shell. Despite this, the female figure of Leda is not quite realistic in anatomy at all - maybe because this was the first and the only painting of the female nude that Leonardo ever finished.

The depiction must have been very successful because as the legend tells after the original painting was inherited by pupils of Leonardo; it was bought by a French aristocrat. He must have liked this painting more than his own wife, because she tore Leonardo's masterpiece apart and burned it in the 17th or 18th century.  - North

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