About the artwork
We are told that, on the bank of the river Eurotas, the shape-shifting god Zeus, having taken the form of a swan, coupled with Leda, wife of the Spartan King Tyndareus. We are told also that, on the same night, Leda had relations with her husband. From these two unions - one natural, the other unnatural - she bore two sets of twins: Castor and Clytemnestra, owing their paternity to Tyndareus, Helen and Polydeuces owing theirs to the immortal Zeus.
Each pair of offspring hatched from an egg. The brothers became famous throughout Sparta: the mortal Castor as a soldier and tamer of horses, the immortal Polydeuces as a boxer. The sisters’ disastrous careers are perhaps better known: Helen’s abduction by Paris precipitating the twelve year Trojan War; Clytemnestra’s murderous vengeance on her husband, King Agamemnon, for the slaying of her daughter Iphigenia, initiating a sequence of violence culminating in her own death at the hands of her remaining children, Electra and Orestes. All this from the encounter of a woman and a swan beside the River Eurotas.
The myth of the Spartan Queen and her avian lover has been used by a number of artists as an excuse for the sensuous design possibilities of bringing together two entirely different graceful ideals of form: female nude and swan. Leonardo showed Leda standing next to the Swan, as proud father, and gazing down on their newly hatched children. Michelangelo painted the couple engaged in the sexual act.
In the case of this Object of the Month the sculptor chose the pre-natal, post-coital moment of the story. Leda reclines languorously, apparently insensible, as if slumped in a comfortable armchair. The swan supports and displays her body as though on an easel or lectern, one wing lifted to raise her right arm to just the correct height for the pose while its sinuous neck curves round from the other direction, head and beak coming to rest between her breasts looking up into her face and at the same time keeping her in position. The white marble body rests on a base of green soapstone or ’Mexican onyx’ carved as foliage, which in turn stands on a bronze plinth in the form of tree branches.
Lever purchased three late Nineteenth Century French polychromatic sculptures; exquisite, virtuoso pieces that seem to owe more to the craftsmanship of decorative jewellery-making than to the Fine Arts. All three were first shown at the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1900. Desiré Maurice Ferrary’s Leda and the Swan, and the life-sized Salammbo (in the South Sculpture Hall) were probably bought from the Exhibition while Clovis Delacour’s Andromeda (near Leda on the right of the door leading to the Entrance Hall) was bought from the artist the following year. All three feature naked females in white marble or ivory, menaced by, or erotically involved with, animals cast in bronze. The myth of Leda, however, presented the polychromatic sculptor with a slight but inescapable problem. In order to achieve the necessary contrast of materials for his protagonists, Ferrary is forced to offer us a dark brown swan.