François Boucher
Leda and the Swan

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    • Oil on Canvas, 1742
    • 23 1/8 x 29 1/4 inches
    • Stair Sainty Matthiesen Museum
      New York

In 1742, Boucher submitted this picture to the Salon for exhibition. It is a refined and delicate painting, finished in a manner appropriate to its rather modest size. Immediately hailed as a masterpiece, Boucher made a copy which was shipped to Sweden in June 1742 where it has remained ever since. The original was throught to have been lost but was discovered and identified in the 1980s. Its free style and soft contours make it one of Boucher's loveliest.

The story of Leda and the swan was extremely popular in both renaissance and baroque art, but Boucher has presented the subject with unerring pictoral instinct, obviously less concerned with sticking to the original story. Nowhere in the various accounts of Jupiter's seduction of Leda, wife of King Tydnareus of Sparta by the god taking the form of a swan, is there mention of a second female as beautiful as Leda herself. And although by their coupling, Leda and Jupiter would produce Castor and Pollux as well as Helen and Clytaemnestra, Boucher's painting hints at none of this. Unlike most representations of the scene, Cupid, the little god of love, is nowhere present. Nor does this craning swan invoke the usual menacing lust of the most powerful of the gods. Indeed the swan is depicted in a way which seems deliberately calculated to contradict the phallic symbolism of its outstreteched neck.

By the addition of a second female figure, Boucher produced a sumptuous pyramid of flesh and luxurious raiment, but whose erotic overtones are somewhat tempered by the pastoral setting. Indeed the swan seems more like a domestic pet than a god about to rape Leda.

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