Sunday, October 28, 2007

Leda and the Swan

Roman, 2nd C. BCE

(note: this is one of those endless posts --
i.e. whenever a new Leda turns up,
I add it to the list)

Recently, I've been finding several versions
of Leda and Swan

So, I thought I'd gather them all together,
from my site and from the rest of the web,
to do a little comparison.

It's such a bizarre theme, isn't it ?
An impossible mating,
but it has drawn the attention of sculptors
for over 2,000 years

Beginning with the above scene
from Republican Rome,
which I think is the only one that
has the swan large enough
to actually mate with a woman,
as well as being the only one
that would suggest that the swan
is the aggressor,
which seems true to the original premise
that the bird is a powerful God in disguise.

(and this is, BTW, one great sculpture)

Roman, 1st Century

This must be a very small piece.
It looks like they're dancing, doesn't it ?
A beautiful piece,
but already Leda is at least
the swan's equal.

(and again, much as I like the sculpture of
the 20th Century,
this Roman guy was better than most of them)

But here's a Roman piece from the Prado
that is something of a disaster -
i.e. I think it was carved by technicians
who had no particular feeling for
what they were doing.

Leda raising her arm in triumph
to declare:
"I have captured the swan" ?
(although the "swan" looks more like
some strange musical instrument)

And this variation (from the Getty Museum)
is hardly any better.
(though, at least the Swan's neck isn't broken)

I get the feeling
that ancient Roman statuary
was made for the kind of market
which today would be buying
pink flamingos
to stand beside the driveway.

Coptic (300 - 641 AD)

This is one angry goose,
and this is more of a battle scene
than an erotic one.

Or.. even more than that,
it's a decorative frieze,
which, for me,
makes it the most delicious

Ammanati 1511-1591)

Jumping ahead a thousand years,
the swan is a kinder, gentler creature,
and Leda looks like one of those
masculine women that Michelangelo (b. 1475) was making.

I love Ammanati,
but not especially this one
which feels like a homage to Michelangelo.

David Anguier, 1654

A very courtly dance,
Leda is fully clothed
to appear in the court
of the greatest prince of Christianity.
(the Sun King would have been 16 at that time)

It's all prim and proper,
but gently pinching that swan's phallic neck at the tip,
there's just a pleasant hint of naughtiness

Jean Thierry (1669-1739)

The swan appears to be making trouble again,
but Leda has everything under control

Jean Thierry, 1715

a lot of sound and fury,
but for what purpose ?
Perhaps that's how me might
define "the Baroque"

From the Scindia Museum, Gwalior (19th or 18th C. ??)

This is the earliest completely erotic
example I could find.

Were the Scandian princes attracted
to European women ?

What an enormous palace they must have had
to accomodate such an enormous,
and controversial piece.

Rudolph Tegners (1873-1950)

This one comes from Robert's website,
and seems to be a throwback to the
very earliest piece on this page.

(But why is that bird pecking her
on the top of the head ?)


This one looks like
they're posing for a photographer
at the high school prom.
(except, of course, nobody is wearing clothes)

Josef Thorak (1889-1952)German

Back to the frankly erotic,
Thorak was given an enormous
air-plane hanger by the Nazis
to use as a studio.

It resembles a painting
of the same theme
that apparently was one of Adolph's favorites.

Poul Lemser (1925-1980)Danish

Cute and charming,
appropriate for the glass case
in which fine porcelains are displayed.

(and this Leda is just a little underage
to be necking with that great bird,
isn't she?

Quinto Martelli (1908-1990)

Back to the frankly erotic,
as the swan's head and neck
become phallic,
and her toes are extended
as she reaches a climax.

P. Silvestre, American

This looks like an Egyptian-ized version
that has been covered by desert sands
for a few thousand years.

This one definitely belongs in a library.

PUTTEMANS, Auguste (1866-1927)Belgium

Another very strange entry,
it's almost as if Leda had just taken
the swan out of the oven
and is preparing him to the the
centerpiece of a banquet.

(all she needs is an apron)

Kai Nielsen, Danish, (1882-1925)

For whatever reason,
this theme seems to be the most popular
in Scandinavia

Kai Nielsen

A very tender, loving moment
in the relationship
between these two species

(and this looks like another Leda
who may not have reached
the age of consent)

Fred Carasso (1899- )

Fred Carasso (Italian)

I like this style of medallion
that leaves most everything
to the imagination

Henri Puvrez (1893-1971) Belgian

Now it looks like the swan has been demoted
to become a house pet,
and Leda is giving him a good snuggle
(as she emerges from the bath)

Gleb Derujinsky (1888-1975)

A rather confusing piece,
it seems like it should be very small,
and function like a netsuke

Ercole Drei (1886-1973)

Back to the erotic,
this one seems to be best exemplify
the poem by Yeats
"How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?"

Here's another,
tamer version
by the same sculptor.
It's more like Leda is dancing
than being ravished

Reuben Nakian (American, 1897-1986), American

Here's a sculpture who specialized in Ledas,
but it's anyone's guess
just what is happening here.

The swan seems to be strutting his stuff,
and Leda is acting appropriately impressed.


Nakian makes more sense to me
as a designer of ceramic plates


... or as a draftsman




R.J. Miller (b. 1922), American

And here's my father's version
(accompanied for this photo by two long-departed kittens
named Muff and Fluff)

Leda looks so solemn - maybe sad,
as if the swan that she's wearing about her neck
had been the yoke traditionally used to
restrain/punish prisoners in China

This seems to be more of an architectural ornament
than of an erotic narrative

Per Ung

Another sculptor who has specialized in Leda
is my favorite living Norwegian, Per Ung.

Here, the swan almost seems to be a burden
that she is destined to carry.

Per Ung

Another wrestling match,
an avian version of
"Jacob and the Angel"

Per Ung (b. 1933) Norway

There's something especially sexual
about Leda reaching down
between her own legs,
and this feature first appeared
way back in Roman times.

Per Ung

When the action is stretched out this way,
it feels like something cosmic is being presented,
i.e. it's not just a strange girl and her bird.

Karen Salicath, Danish

And the myth continues,
up to the work of this young woman
who was born in 1968

Karen Salicath

Very cute,
maybe too cute ?
Isn't this a girl with her pet ?

(but who can blame
the only female sculptor on this page
from being less than enthusiastic
about the theme of ravishment ?)

Here's another
female sculptor,
Antonietta Raphael
where the swan
is more like a coat of feathers


And now Robert
has sent me some more !
(though he hasn't always
recorded the name of the artist)

Ouch !
(Robert doesn't like to pass judgment,
but I can't help it)

Ouch again !

(but I like the reversal
of roles -- which is ridiculous
but no less so than the original concept)


This has to be one of those Art Deco Germans,
just as perverted as they can be

(but as it turns out, I'm wrong...
it's Jean Jacques Pradier, Swiss,
and the piece is dated 1851)

Actually -- I kind of like this sculpture,
and it's pedastal,
but what the hell is going on here ?

Just about as bad
as bad 19C. commercial sculpture can be

This one sure feels East European to me,
I have difficulty imagining the other views,
but this view is fine with me.

(actually -- it's Enzo Plazzotta,
the Italian who worked in Britain)

Robert Cockle Lucas (1800- 1883)

So here we have a copy, a bad copy
of the Roman piece shown at the very top,
which I'll show again as follows:

Roman, 2nd C. BCE

Isn't it amazing what a difference
the small differences can make ?

The copyist had no feeling for what I might call
"the large shape".
Look at how he improvises by
introducing new, smaller forms within the shape
of Leda's buttocks and back that kills the
wonderful sweep of the original.
Look at how he thickens
her arm to make it look dumpy.
Look at how mis-draws
the neck of the swan so it looks broken
instead of strong.
Look at how he changes the proportions of the
flight feathers in the wing so they look puny.
Look at how he wrecks the triangular shape
of the drapery at Leda's leg
so it no longer appears to support her,
how he shrinks the space between Leda and the swan's wing
so it's no longer spacious.

Every change he made was wrong,
he understood nothing about how the original sculpture
was so successful.

A complete disaster !

(and Mr. Lucas was trained at the Royal Academy,
and made this piece when he was 50)

19c French ivory

This looks like a fine little piece to me,
and very fanciful the way that
Leda appears to be leaning against
the bird's wing

Bertram Mackennal (1863-1931)

And didn't you just know this sculptor had to be Anglo ?
(he's Australian, actually)

I presume this object has some kind of functionality ?
that possibly involves the spike that's on the swan's head ?

Maurice Ferrary (1852-1904)

All that's missing are the cigarettes !

More Reuben Nakian
(I think I've seen enough, already)

There's a reason that sculptors
try to proceed beyond their rough sketches.

I wish the US mint
had coins that looked like this one.

In the manner of Lorenzo Bartolini, 1777-1850

Robert has sent this one,
it appears to be 18th C.,
but who knows?

This Leda is very young, boyish Leda
without any hips

Lelio Coluccini (1910-1983) Italy-Brazil

Lelio Coluccini

Coluccini seems to have been
another Leda specialist

Falconet after Bouchet

Here's an innovation:
Leda in a three-some

Aart Schonk

What a nice, dreamy treatment!
When the swan is more like a down comforter.
(but I wonder how the other views look)

Heinz Beberniß (born 1920)

This Leda is from the "Heavy Figure School"

John Sims (his website is found here )
is another specialist in the genre.

Very erotic --
But this is more about how
the participants are feeling,
rather than how they are presented
to our voyeuristic eyes.

Edouard Cazaux (1889-1974)

Edouard Houssin (1847-1919)

Here's another one sent by Robert Mileham.

One of the few that shows
the great bird
approaching from the rear.

Feels very 18th C.

Jules Roulleau (1855-1895)

Here's a feast
of flesh and feathers
from the 19th C.

Not much erotic energy here,
this would work well
as a decorative centerpiece
on a large table,
perhaps surrounded by
seasonal flowers and fruits.

Armand Martial (1884-1960)

A very nice figure,
but this girl is laying
with a down comforter,
not a sexually active bird

Jules Desbois (1851-1935)

This looks like a model study that got retro-fitted with a swan.
But still, the French government commissioned
a marble version in 1891

Josef Josephu (Austrian /American 1889-1970)

That pesky bird
can be so annoying
when it demands attention.

Here is the same sculptor, Josephu, with
what may be a more engaging version.


Here's an Italian site that's collected paintings on the subject,
from which the above tender scene has been taken.
Unlike sculpture, painting can manipulate atmospheric effects and perspective.
(If Leda stood up, I don't think
her spindly legs could support that giant head)
This time, the swan wants to have
a good look at Leda's lady parts,
but Leda seems more like the servant
than the lady to whom this dusty old palace belongs.
And unlike most realizations
that anthropomorphize the swan,
this is more like one bird meeting another,
beak to beak.

Here's a more contemporary piece
by the South African sculptor, Wim Botha.

It looks like something
that might be seen
as a momentary flash
in the contemporary staging
of a Baroque opera.

Poor Leda and her swan
got together and then exploded!

How sad.

Carrier-Belleuse, 1870

(I just stumbled across this one at the Met)

Paul Matthias Padua (1903-1981)

Apparently, Hitler owned this painting

Joseph Charles Marin

Very sensitive and discreet, this youthful Leda gently caresses the neck of the swan.
Giuseppe Croff (1810-1869)
Robert has sent me yet another entry, this one being Neo-Classical from mid nineteenth century Milan. It has something of the quiet, egg-like majesty of Milan's favorite son, Leonardo.  But it does seem rather stiff, turgid, and dull.  No sexuality here.
 Leda is petting the swan as if he were a house cat. 

Gauguin, 1887


Just saw this ceramic vase in a  special exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago.

It looks like the girl is carrying her swan to market.


Blogger marlyat2 said...


That was a very enjoyable flight through Leda-and-the-swan history, especially after a weekend of Peewee football and kid-ferrying. Some very lovely pieces, some oddities, and some that I wouldn't care to see too often...

Small note: Yeats did a number of "versions" of Ronsard sonnets. And Ronsard also wrote a poem about Leda and the swan.

October 29, 2007  
Blogger Robert said...

Brave man, Chris. Lots of them I hadn't seen, but I have several more, probably into double figures. Thank you for introducing Mr Per Ung, I must look him up.

I was thinking of doing a similar post on sculpture of The Three Graces which that "French site" has recently high-lighted with many paintings.

October 30, 2007  
Blogger chris miller said...

Robert - you've got several more ?
Now is the time to post them! -- we might even make this a lifetime project -- to collect pictures of every Leda ever made.

I'm especially eager to see more Ledas from ancient Rome -- they seem to have had a special talent for it.

BTW -- I just discovered this wonderful site that collects pictures of every statue of Athena ever found.

BTW II: Perhaps Marly could collect all of the poems on this subject ?

October 30, 2007  
Blogger marlyat2 said...

Oh, good: a reason to procrastinate.

The Ronsard poem is "La Defloration de Lede." You already know the fabulous Yeats, "Leda and the Swan."

Mona van Duyn has a poem called "Leda" does a kind of dance with the Yeats poem, quoting the last phrase and focuses mostly on Leda's later life: "She tried for a while to understand what it was / that had happened, and then decided to let it drop. / She married a smaller man with a beaky nose, / and melted away in the storm of everyday life." It's hard to do a reply to Yeats, though. It's a good thing it's about melting into the ordinary!

BOA published a collected Lucille Clifton recently, but I don't have a copy, alas. She has a group of Leda poems. The one I know has an aggressive Leda-stance.

D. H. Lawrence: "treading of wet, webbed, wave-working feet / into the marsh-soft belly." From "Leda."

Rilke also has a "Leda" poem, in which Zeus is shattered by its splendor as he becomes swan.

Robert Graves, "Leda." There the heart meditates on Leda and swan, "perpetuating night."

I don't remember one in Archaic Smile, but I'll take a look. You would like that collection. A. E. Stallings. She lived in Athens and has many poems with classical subjects. It's a very solid book, and she likes Yeats, too. Anybody who ends a poem with "Dolphins sewing the torn ocean" likes Yeats and wants us to know it. ("Marbles of the dancing floor / Break bitter furies of complexity, / Those images that yet
Fresh images beget, / That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea" from "Byzantium.")

Oh, I forgot H. D. (Hilda Doolittle.) She has a dreamy poem, long and thin like a swan's neck (or something.) "Leda."

October 30, 2007  
Blogger marlyat2 said...

Barbara Bentley, "Living Next to Leda" and Nina Kossman, "Leda."

I remembered an anthology, Gods and Mortals: Modern Poems on Classical Myths. It was edited by the above Nina Kossman. Oxford, 2001.

October 30, 2007  
Blogger Robert said...

Perhaps it would be better if I did the 3 graces, but unlike you Chris I am bad at remembering who the sculptor was and tend to let people make up their own mind on the merits of individual works. This is because I tend to cause merriment for others which is not always intended! I have sent you 16 pictures of other Ledas by email, please do not ask who did them or where I found them.

Marley did your Yeats fellow write anything about the 3 graces? If not perhaps you could have a go!

October 30, 2007  
Blogger Robert said...

Well done Chris with the sculptors names, you beat me to it. The Bertrum Mackennal is a candle stick I think.

October 31, 2007  
Blogger chris miller said...

I am so tickled by Marley's anthology of Leda poems !

I can't wait to start looking them up -- especially the one by Robert Graves.

October 31, 2007  
Anonymous marly said...

Yeats and the graces... I'll have to think. I do have a dining table that was once owned by somebody named Thalia. (Rather pretty, and easier to spell than Euphrosyne and Aglaea.) It has an Achilles' leg, too, that broke under the pressure of a family birthday party--many little girls leaning one way can produce a sizeable strain.

I thought of somebody else to consider for Leda: Kathleen Raine. She's a wonderful poet and a sort of descendant from those she considers her "masters," Blake and Yeats. I'll check her out as well.

October 31, 2007  
Anonymous Amanda J. Sisk said...

A.E. Stallings - splendid poet and person. How nice to encounter her name here.

Chris...why am I not surprised by your most recent subject, and the number of comments it has garnered?

October 31, 2007  
Blogger chris miller said...

Hi Amanda,

Why are you not surprised ?

Because it would be easier for a leopard to change its spots -- than for me to write about anything else!

BTW - what did you think about my analysis of the Robert Cockle Lucas ?
Would you agree with it ?

October 31, 2007  
Blogger Robert said...

I had assumed that it was a wax cast from the orininal. In those days they would have used a waste mould of sorts so the result would not have been so good (C 1850)

October 31, 2007  
Blogger chris miller said...

I've made a lot of bad casts in my day, Robert -- a bad cast loses details -- it doesn't gain them.

New shapes are added to Leda -- the feathers in the wings of Mr. Swan are completely re-drawn -- time and time again the poor sculptor has butchered a great design -- and the fact that he wasn't immediately thrown in prison (or shipped to Australia) , is a sad commentary on the quality level of Victorian sculpture and its public.

October 31, 2007  
Blogger Robert said...

Am I allowed to agree a little bit here Chris?
His "improvements" would suggest that perhaps it is not a caste from the original but what is generally described as "After".
I don’t think you can blame either The Royal Academy or the Victorians. It is well deserved flattery to the Roman sculptor that anyone should want to copy it. The fact that it is, as you describe, a disaster, can only be laid at Mr Lucas’ feet.
As to your analysis, I go along with you there. He gave you something to really get your teeth into!
But now I must throw some more water on the whole thing. Was this Roman work actually painted? There is a really interesting article in Harvard Magazine on the subject which I have sent you. If this was the case then the “form” would to some extent be disguised.
It does not alter your analysis in the raw though. I have sent you the link to the Harvard essay so you can dissect it as publicly as you see fit.

November 01, 2007  
Blogger Amanda J. Sisk said...

You're a bit harsh on RCL. Yes, I prefer the original. Yes, he does seem to get caught up in the small details and perhaps loses the whole as a result. But if I hadn't seen the two together, I would note the soft, curvaceous flow of his copy. He has eliminated the angularity of the bird's wing and matches this touch with his treatment of the buttocks. He may have been honorably attempting to introduce subtle touches that time erased...for all we know, the apex of this or that form was once far more pronounced, making aspects of the copy closer to the now eroded original.

November 01, 2007  
Blogger chris miller said...

You would be a fine, compassionate teacher, Amanda.

(for all the students I have already driven out of my class!)

November 01, 2007  
Blogger Amanda J. Sisk said...

A compliment indeed - and a laugh, too. I will gladly take rejected students from Atelier Miller. And when I'm done with them, you'll beg me to give them back. :)

November 02, 2007  
Blogger Robert said...

The modern Leda on her toes holding the swan up high seems to be by Enzo Plazzotta (Italian 1921-1981)

I was a bit surprised, I don’t know why.

November 03, 2007  
Blogger Cam said...

Loved looking at this post, Chris.

November 08, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

which of these "Leda and the Swan" is from the Carlos Museum of Emory University?

November 02, 2008  
Blogger sator said...

There's on this subject, a beautiful poem
I think by Yeats....I'll try to search...
Also, greek seals, ring stones.
Castor & Polux, twins, were the result of
this divine "acouplement" born in shape of

September 03, 2009  
Blogger Abyjit said...

That was quite a collection indeed! Thanx a lot.But wished there was a little more background on the Gwalior piece.

September 14, 2009  
Blogger chris miller said...

I'm afraid the only background I can find for that piece is a history of the British Raj and its effect on local princes.

September 14, 2009  
Blogger Johnsimsartnstuff said...

What a pleasure it is to come back here and be enveloped in Leda's every now and it. I have not carved a Leda since my one here...but drawn a few...I can't get her out of my head lol. O and new work on

November 16, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

January 04, 2010  
Anonymous stewart said...

Here is a lovely intaglio carnelian gemstone of Leda and the Swan on flickr tag leda intaglio

March 12, 2010  
Blogger chris miller said...

Very nice -- I only wish the image were larger

March 12, 2010  
Blogger lvm_032003 said...

Do you know the sluptor of the one From the Scindia Museum, Gwalior.??? Thank You.!

July 28, 2010  
Blogger chris miller said...

There's no mention on the internet who did the Scandia Leda.
Which is too bad, since the sculptor was a very good one.

July 30, 2010  
Anonymous Marek cuhra said...

maybe it is my european background influencing me, maybe it's the reproduction of lustfull Leda and her swan on my wall as Im writing this, - I must say, to me there is but one conclusion of this ancient paradox, how can women seem so chast and difficult, playing the hard-to-get, and on the other hand, in other settings be so completely erotic, naughty, dirty wonderfull sluts?
The sculpture made by Kai Nielsen in the collections of Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen is sublime, - it shows both these sides of woman nature, - just look at it! One hand on her forehead, with a sigh, oh ye terrible bird, stop it! - and yet, just look at that heavy other arm, pushing the bird against her crotch and holding it there. This is eroticism in its most sublime ambivalence, this should be recognized as a masterpiece of sculpture, a contribution to our world herritage! But, unfortunately this sculpture is no longer on public display in Copenhagen, - following the new political regime and advent of conservative thinking in Denmark, the Kai Nielsen Leda og Svanen has been moved to an unknown storage and is no longer accessible to the public. So I was told by one of the employees at the Glyptoteket when I enquired about the sculpture some time ago, - this open manifestation of eroticism apparently was judged to be "too much" for some people! At the same time society is hammering our faces with stupid vulgar pornography from every newsstand and tv channel, - what an amazing paradox!

Anyway, - Chris, thanks for the collection, - it is valuable! -

January 04, 2011  
Blogger chris miller said...

Thanks for the comment, Marek.

I have just crossed Copenhagen off the list for my next European itinerary.

(but will happily relist it, as soon as Nielsen's conflicted Leda is back on view!)

January 04, 2011  

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