Leda and the swan

Ever since classical antiquity, the swan has symbolised beauty, elegance and perfection in the arts. Not surprisingly, in the Greek myth of Leda and the swan became very popular in art. The myth tells of the infatuated Zeus who failed to seduce the married Leda. He decided to transform himself into a swan. And indeed, after this transformation, he managed to overwhelm Leda and they made love. From Da Vinci to Dalí, the myth of Leda and the swan is a recurring subject in visual art. 

During the Renaissance's heyday, there were many artists who drew on classical mythology and so did the story of Leda and the swan. Both Da Vinci and Michelangelo were captivated by the story of the gods. Unfortunately, their paintings have not survived the test of time: they were part of the royal collection at Fontainebleau castle, but may have been deliberately destroyed. Thanks to the many copies to both works, it is still possible to form a picture of the compositions. Whereas Da Vinci painted a mysteriously smiling Leda standing next to the swan with its wing resting on her hip, Michelangelo chose a reclining Leda with her legs wrapped around the swan. Despite the difference in the two compositions, they are faithful imitations of the myth. 

Copy after Leonardo da Vinci, 1510-15
Engraving after Michelangelo Buonarotti

In the 20th century, however, a change was visible here. Although the myth still inspired many artists, it was no longer depicted faithfully. Constantin Brancusi, for instance, gave his own interpretation of the story in the 1920 sculpture Leda. Since Brancusi could not imagine how Zeus, a man, could turn into a swan, he crafted a Leda transformed into a swan. Salvador Dalí also showed his own interpretation of the myth in Leda Atomica from 1949. Leda is depicted seated on a column amid a floating swan, a book, an egg and a ruler. Based on atomic theory, which assumes that particles at the atomic level do not physically touch each other, there is also no contact between the painted objects, not even the sea touching the land.

Constantin Brancusi, Leda, 1920
Salvador Dalí, Leda Atomica, 1949

Cy Twombly also put his own spin on the myth. What at first glance looks like a child's drawing with scratches and smudges, however, shows the rough aftermath of a battle. It is a chaos of feathers, blood, hearts, beaks, phalluses and breasts. 

Cy Twombly, Leda and the swan, 1962

It is amazing how the myth of Leda and the swan has inspired many artists for centuries. Whereas the Renaissance mainly stuck to the story of the gods by depicting it faithfully, 20th-century artists mainly showed their own interpretation of it. Cliché or not, this tradition in visual art clearly shows that the myth still captures the imagination of many.

This blog was written by art historian Celine Ariaans.

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