Peter Paul Rubens - Leda and the Swan

by Tony Hoyer


The seductive painting of Leda with the swan comes from the early oeuvre of Rubens and shows a scene of Greek mythology , which is also found in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Leda, as the daughter of the Aetolian king Thestios and wife of the Spartan king Tyndareos, took a bath naked in the river Eurotas. While doing so, she was observed by Zeus, who immediately fell in love with her and devised a ruse to get close to the beautiful woman. He transformed himself into a swan and sought shelter from an eagle by the one sitting on the bank. Leda, naked and adorned only with a golden diadem, receives the swan protectively in the reeds between her legs. In the erotic depiction we see Leda in an intimate intertwining with the swan, their heads are turned towards each other; while her thigh turned towards the viewer quivers lustfully and pulls the swan closer, her bent left arm hangs down lasciviously. Her right arm is crossed over her body, so that Zeus, as the swan, must pass his neck twisted underneath to reach her mouth. A masterful moment of body torsion. Thus we become voyeurs of an intimate moment, made even more sexually charged by the swan's plumage pressed down on Leda's pubis.

Ruben's technique of depicting the different surfaces is admirable. The smooth, warm skin contrasts with the cool, shiny plumage of the swan. Both color worlds can also be found in the fabric on which Leda lies. The surroundings, reminiscent of Dutch flower still lifes, indicate that Rubens completed the painting before his trip to Italy in 1600; no similar motif works can be found after that. Likewise, the working material, namely oak wood, indicates that "Leda and the Swan" was painted in Antwerp before 1600, since Rubens painted primarily on canvas or walnut wood in Italy. The composition of the painting goes back to a now lost work by Michelangelo, who already dealt with Leda and the Swan in the early 16th century. Because of its objectionable subject, it was hardly copied and kept locked. Only the original on cardboard survived; however, it too was lost in the mid-16th century. In addition to the large version in Dresden, there is also a smaller one that can be found in New York.


Peter Paul Rubens - Leda and the Swan

Oil on oak, c. 1598-1600, 122 x 182cm, Old Masters Picture Gallery in Dresden