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Many versions of the original Leda and the Swan by Leonardo da Vinci exist today, most of which were produced by his followers, possibly under his direction.
The most famous versions that are currently documented reside in a selection of private and public galleries across Europe, and each have been titled accordingly. One of the most famous of these resides in the Uffizi in Florence, Italy, whilst others can be found in Wilton House, UK, Galleria Borghese, Rome and another in Kassel, Germany.
A study of this small selection of paintings offers an opportunity to better understand the similarities and variations between Leonardo and his students. As with many of his paintings, it has only been relatively recently that confident attributions have been given to some of these pieces, with it being notoriously difficult to differentiate between members of the same studio.
Leonardo da Vinci's own version of Leda and the Swan was lost, sadly, which is why so much attention has been given to the copies made by his followers. He had actually planned to produce two different compositions based on Leda, but the first one was never completed, and the second one lost at some point in the 17th century.
The artist left behind a large number of preparatory sketches from his career, including for the design of both versions that he had in mind. This allows us to understand how both paintings would have looked, particularly when we add the copies that were made of his second painting by a number of followers.
Most copies that exist today were of Leonardo's second version, with Leda standing whilst cuddling a swan, with children sat around her on the floor. Indeed, even great names such as Raphael would produce their own sketches of this composition, and he was known to be a keen admirer of Leonardo da Vinci's drawings and paintings.
Leda and the Swan, more generally, has featured within western art for centuries, dating back to long before Leonardo and his students addressed this theme within their own careers. The topic draws in elements of symbolism and also allows the artist to combine different technical skills within the same painting, most notably in the anatomical portraits of Leda in full length.
Many have found the story of Leda and the Swan to be too controversial, and have either removed depictions of it, or possibly even destroyed them. Even today, such topics could potentially fall mercy of the mob, who seek to control what types of art are acceptable.
The article below discusses the original work completed by Leonardo for his initial, unfinished piece, and the second painting which was later lost. We also touch of the other versions from related artists within his studio and examine the symbolism of Leda within art, and which other artists have also included her within their oeuvres.
Table of Contents
- Story behind Leda and the Swan
- Leonardo's First (Unfinished) Version
- Leonardo's Second (Lost) Version
- Uffizi Version
- Wilton House Version
- Galleria Borghese, Rome Version
- Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel Version
- Other Copies of Leonardo's Leda and the Swan
- Other Interpretations of this Leda and the Swan
Story behind Leda and the Swan
The story of Leda and the Swan comes directly from Greek mythology. This harrowing story tells of God Zeus raping Leda, whilst having taken the form of a swan. There would be a number of different versions of the story that appeared at the time, but this main element remains consistent throughout.
This theme would appear particularly frequently in the 16th century, perhaps partly encouraged by the contributions of Leonardo da Vinci and other members of his studio. The theme would also be taken into other artistic disciplines too, such as sculpture and engraving, whilst there are also some very early sculptures on this topic from Roman times.
The story behind Leda and the Swan would prove controversial for many, and perhaps that is why a number of paintings of it have been lost, assumed destroyed. Da Vinci in his early career would concentrate on religious themes, but over time he started to tackle secular portraits and mythological themes such as this, always striving to take on new challenges.
Leonardo's First (Unfinished) Version
Leonardo produced at least three study sketches in around 1503 in preparation for his first painting of Leda. This version would feature her sat on the ground, alongside her children. The main painting would have followed in 1504 but the artist eventually decided not to complete this work. The artist's preparations included work in chalk and pen and ink, suggesting he had spent quite some time considering how the final composition would have looked.
Leonardo's Second (Lost) Version
Several years later, in around 1508, the artist started to design an alternative design for Leda, and this version was eventually turned into a completed painting. Sadly, this version was later lost, presumed destroyed, but by then a good number of copies had been produced by the artist's assistants. With both of Leonardo's versions unavailable today, we are left to peruse these alternative versions by related artists.
The painting pictured at the top of the page is the version now found in the Uffizi gallery in Florence, Italy. It is loosely attributed to the circle of Leonardo, and many names have been put forward over the years. The composition itself features four babies breaking out of eggs, which relates to the mythological story in which Leda gives birth after being raped by Zeus, who was disguised as a swan.
The layout is typical of Leonardo, with one side covering the foreground with a rocky vertical environment, whilst the opposing side is entirely open, allowing space in which to provide a spawling landscape which drifts off into the distance. Leda herself stands in full figure, with her head turned away from the swan, who she holds in her arms.
Theories around the creator of this piece have included Francesco Melzi, possibly in conjunction with Joos van Cleve. Cesare da Sesto and Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina have also been mentioned, but it is now unlikely that this mystery will ever be solved, with relatively little known about these artists in comparison to the great masters such as Leonardo.
Wilton House Version
Cesare da Sesto produced a copy of Leonardo's work in 1515–1520. It now resides in Wilton House, which is an English country home based in Wiltshire, in the south west of the country. The venue continues to host a fine selection of art within its permanent collection and there have been rumours that part of the building was designed by famous painter, Hans Holbein the Younger.
Cesare da Sesto was mainly active in Milan and his version features Leda standing tall in front of us, with a tight clinch around the swan. Again, babies appear from cracked egg shells in the foreground, whilst a landscape sweeps across behind. The angle and expression on Leda's face is entirely typical of the other copies from this time, suggesting that these all mirrored Da Vinci's own version, which was later lost.
Galleria Borghese, Rome Version
The version found in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, Italy is dated to around c. 1510–1515, which places it right towards the end of master Leonardo's lifetime. It was produced using tempera on wood and is currently attributed to Il Sodoma, or Giovanni Antonio Bazzi. His artistic style was somewhat different to Leonardo, having worked for most of his career in Rome and Siena, which impacted his artistic direction.
This is perhaps the most stunning and technically impressive of all the copies made, with a delightful village displayed on the left hand side, and an impressive display of anatomical portraiture in the foreground. The artist adds considerable detail across the piece, and was already an accomplished artist in what was fairly early on in his career.
Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel Version
The Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel in Germany hosts an accurate copy of Leonardo's first, incomplete, version. It shows us how the master's work would have looked, and must have been based on drawings of the original idea. It was completed in around 1515/20 and this period was particularly busy within Leonardo's studio.
In this case the piece was constructed by Giampietrino, someone who is known to have copied his master's work on several occasions as a means to show respect, but also to hone his own technical skills. These would become valuable items in their own right, and the artist typically focused on religious themes within his career, sometimes re-visiting the same themes several times over.
Other Copies of Leonardo's Leda and the Swan
Besides those mentioned above, many more versions exist across the western world. For example, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, USA holds a 16th century copy of Leonardo's second version within its permanent collection. They list the maker as unknown, but a close observation of this version reveals a North-European style to the landscape across the background, suggesting that the artist(s) made use of a little creative freedom in this version.
Giampietrino was a particularly famous pupil of Leonardo who produced many copies of his master's work and he covered Leda and the Swan in a piece which now resides within a private collection in Milan. That item removed all background details, and focuses on a heavily tweaked composition, making it less of a direct copy. Another version attributed to Giampietrino can be found in the collection of C. Gibbs, London.
Domenico Beccafumi or Luca Cambiaso have also been connected to a piece which resides at the New Orleans Museum of Art, USA, though it is stylistically very different to Da Vinci's version, and one could argue that the artist may have taken inspiration from elsewhere with this piece (the background reminds us of Netherlandish depictions of Hell).
Other Interpretations of this Leda and the Swan
The mythological story behind Leda and the Swan has provided inspiration for artists through out the ages, and can be found in a variety of different artistic styles and disciplines. It was particularly common in the 16th century, perhaps inspired by the contributions of Leonardo and his studio, but other interpretations can be traced back to Roman times, such as a sculpture by Timotheos.
In terms of artists related to Leonardo, an excellent piece was delivered by Correggio in around c. 1530 which now resides in Berlin, Germany. The composition feels somewhat contemporary as compared to other versions of that period. More recently, we have seen modern versions in which forms are re-thought, and most of these bear no resemblance to the work of the great Renaissance painters and sculptors.
Of the more recent versions, perhaps Paul Cézanne's Leda and the Swan can be considered amongst the best, combining influences from the past with a modern palette and an expressive use of the brush. Indeed, one can instantly tell both the subject and the artist when viewing this piece.