23 ¼ “ x 28 5/16 “ (59 x 72 cm); framed 30 5/16 “ x 35 ¼ “ (77 x 89.5 cm)
At the Salon of 1742, François Boucher presented a painting inspired by the theme of Leda and the swan. By depicting her as a nymph pressed against the breast of a female companion, he offers a very personal reading of this theme highlighting its erotic character. The studio version we are proposing, similar in size to the original, is a very faithful rendition of the painting presented at the Salon, which is now in a private American collection.
1. François Boucher, the master of French rocaille
The extraordinary career of Francois Boucher was unmatched by his contemporaries in versatility, consistency and output. For many, particularly the writers and collectors who led the revival of interest in the French rococo during the last century, his sensuous beauties and plump cupids represent the French eighteenth century at its most typical. His facility with the brush, even when betraying the occasional superficiality of his art, enabled him to master every aspect of painting – history and mythology, portraiture, landscape, ordinary life and, as part of larger compositions, even still life. He had been trained as an engraver, and the skills of a draftsman, which he imbued in the studio of Jean-Francois Cars (1661 – 1738), stood him in good stead throughout his career; his delightful drawings are one of the most sought-after aspects of his oeuvre.
As a student of Francois Lemoyne (1688 - 1737), he mastered the art of composition. The four years he spent in Italy, from 1727-1731, educated him in the works of the masters, classics and history, that his modest upbringing had denied him.
On his return to Paris in 1734, he gained full membership of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture with his splendid Rinaldo and Armida (Paris, Musée du Louvre). Although, throughout his career, he occasionally painted subjects taken from the Bible, and would always have considered himself first as a history painter, his own repertoire of heroines, seductresses, flirtatious peasant girls and erotic beauties was better suited to a lighter, more decorative subject matter. His mastery of technique and composition enabled him to move from large scale tapestry cartoons (he worked throughout his career for both the Beauvais and Gobelins tapestry factories, becoming director of the latter in 1755), to intimate masterpieces such as Diana Resting (Paris, Louvre) or Leda and the Swan and the occasional scene from everyday life such as The Luncheon (Paris, Louvre), with its elegantly dressed figures grouped around a well-laid table.
Enormously successful and widely bought, Boucher’s output was prodigious. First patronized by the Crown in the 1730s, and appointed Premier Peintre du Roi in 1765, he executed numerous royal and princely commissions until his death in 1770, working particularly for Louis XV’s mistress, the Marquise de Pompadour in each of her several palaces. Always ready to utilize his talents in other fields, he designed stage sets for theatre and opera and supplied drawings to be used as designs for figures at the Vincennes (later Sèvres) porcelain factory. As a teacher, he was much loved by his many students, who included Fragonard, Le Prince, Deshays, Brenet, Baudouin, Lagrenee, and Madame de Pompadour herself.
In his earliest surviving works with their colourful rococo palette, even David, a distant cousin, was clearly influenced by Boucher. Not since Le Brun had a single French artist held such a monopoly on the imagery of a particular society or left such a mark on the art of his time.
2. Description of the artwork
Leda was the daughter of Thestius, king of Pleuron, and the wife of Tyndarus, king of Sparta. She was seduced by Zeus on the banks of the river Eurotas, where he had taken the form of a swan. From this union came Helen, the famous wife of Menelaus, who was the cause of the Trojan War, and Pollux, one of the Dioscuri.
For François Boucher, this mythological background is merely a pretext for describing two nymphs surprised by a swan that has come to take refuge near them in the privacy of a grotto surrounded by greenery. All our attention is drawn to the representation of these two female bodies, the swan-Jupiter becoming a decorative accessory. They both lie on a velvety red-orange cloth that highlights their pearly bodies and forms a kind of casket, evoking a marine conch shell. The second woman’s position is similar to the one he would later give to his famous Brunette Odalisque.
The triangle formed by the two nymphs and the swan is perfectly balanced: the swan's outstretched wing responds to the slightly raised right leg of the reclining nymph, but also evokes Leda's raised arm, while the swan's sinuous neck follows the curve of Leda's body.
The presence of this second nymph, with her head resting on Leda's breast, brings an additional erotic charge to the encounter between Leda and the swan, which is also rich in innuendo. While Leda's hand behind her companion's shoulders demonstrates their intimacy, both of their eyes focus on the swan's head, suggesting a competition for his attention...
3. Leda and the Swan, one of Boucher's great successes
François Boucher presented a composition representing Leda and the Swan at the Salon of 1742 under the number 21 bis. The workshop version we propose has dimensions very close to this original (59 x 72 cm versus 60 x 74 cm for this original).
An autographed version by François Boucher, also very similar in size (59.5 x 74 cm), is kept in the National Museum in Stockholm and comes from the collection of Carl Gustaf Tessin, Swedish ambassador to Paris between 1739 and 1742. This version, commissioned by Tessin from Boucher, was sent to Sweden as early as June 1742, before the painting was shown at the Salon between August and September 1742.
The Stockholm version is the best known: the one presented at the 1742 Salon disappeared for many years in various private American collections before reappearing at Sotheby's in 1985. When it last appeared on the market in 2005, it was sold by the Stair Sainty Gallery in New York to a private American collection.
Comparing the photographs of the two original works, the studio version we propose seems to be much closer to the painting presented at the Salon than to the version kept in Stockholm, particularly in the rendering of the vegetation surrounding the two women, in which we find the delicate bluish tones that do not appear in the Stockholm version.
These two autographed versions are the only depictions of Leda and the Swan by François Boucher. Highly appreciated at the time of its presentation, the painting was the subject of a dozen workshop versions, including the one we are offering. Our painting is presented in a gilded wooden frame in the Louis XV style which perfectly highlights the preciousness of the scene.
Main bibliographic reference :
Boucher - Catalogue of the Grand Palais exhibition (September 18 1986 - January 5 1987) - RMN 1986
Delevery information :
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