Executed circa 1882, the present work depicts the moment in Greek mythology when Leda, wife of the King of Sparta, is seduced by Zeus---who, in the guise of a swan, has fallen into her arms to seek shelter from an attacking eagle. Though a well-known tale and a popular subject for artists since the Renaissance's Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, Moreau infuses the erotic narrative with his own dream-like, sensual aesthetic of sumptuous color and shifting textures.
Moreau first painted the myth in 1846 and returned to it several times in the 1870s and 1880s. In an oil painting from 1875, he depicts the swan in a submissive form at Leda's feet. Another very large composition, now in the Musée Gustave Moreau in Paris, places the emphasis on the swan's divine identity, transforming the mythological tale into an Annunciation scene, with a halo set behind the bird's head and putti carrying forth a crown. In another, more intimate watercolor and ink of 1875, Leda is presented in the same posture as in the present work, but with her arms modestly folded. Here, Leda rests one arm across her body, the other outstretched, echoing the form of the swan's curving neck and long wing. The symmetry of this pair recalls the artist's own belief in the duality of the lovers, unified by love but divided by mortality. As Moreau explained, "beside that of the chosen woman, [the swan] endows her with his whiteness and divinity. Dreamlike and attentive, Leda remains motionless under the divine spell. Hers is the august slumber preceding transfigurations. Utterly graceful in her power and force, she is a white camellia beneath the white lily" (as quoted in Pierre-Louis Mathieu, Gustave Moreau, Paris, 1994, p 119).
Moreau's inventive interpretation of the subject is further supported by his virtuosity as a watercolorist. In the present work, against the acid green of Leda's cloak, the soft texture and ivory tones of her body subtly contrast with the brilliance of the swan's stiffened feathers. The shadowy caves and craggy structures of an inhospitable landscape, the rose-orange red of the setting sun, and deeply saturated blues of the darkening sky heighten the drama of this otherworldly love. The overall sensuality of the scene may have had personal resonance for the artist. Along with the tales of Andromeda, Paisphae, and Sappho, Leda and the Swan was one of the mythological subjects Moreau created as gifts for Adélaïde Alexandrine Dureux. While somewhat shrouded in mystery, Moreau and Dureux's relationship, which spanned over thirty years, was built upon a deep friendship — and likely a private romance. In 1886, Moreau expressed his desire that "at my last hour [Dureux's] hand be clasped in mine and we be left alone together (as quoted in Matheiu, p. 160).
Unlike many nineteenth century painters who dismissed watercolor as a preparatory device, Moreau believed his watercolors were complete compositions in their own right and exhibited many of them at the Paris Salon. From the 1870s onward, Moreau used the medium to masterful effect, creating compositions on paper with striking color harmonies, akin to cloisonné enamel in their delicacy of execution and minute detail. In 1886 Moreau held a major exhibition of his watercolors at the Galerie Goupil — a testament of his particular passion for the medium as it was the only comprehensive retrospective of his works during his lifetime.
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