The present canvas was painted for Augustus III, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, the heir of Augustus II the Strong, who had inherited the throne—with the aid of the Russian Empire—after a war of succession. The link to Augustus III is strengthened by the existence of a preparatory drawing conserved in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan that bears the date 1756 on the recto and an inscription on the verso that reads “Per la Sua maesta’ il Re di Polonia 1756.” Cignaroli was a diligent chronicler of his own work, and the Ambrosiana Leda sketch is one of 392 works bound into three volumes that comprise a thematic anthology of Cignaroli’s output, and document his numerous explorations and compositional solutions to various subjects. The prolific French collector, Pierre-Jean Mariette (1694 1774), maintained that Cignaroli had compiled these volumes himself and that he refused to part with any of the sketches contained within them—even when Mariette offered to pay him handsomely for one or two for his own collection.1
Although the majority of Augustus III’s art collections are still preserved in Dresden, it appears that this work must have been sold—or otherwise removed—from the King’s collection very shortly after its arrival at Augustus’s court. In spite of its universal mention in all of the contemporary and posthumous accounts of Cignaroli’s life, including Alessandro Longhi’s Compendio delle vite de’ pittori veneziani istorici più rinomati del presente secolo con suoi ritratti tratti dal naturale, there is no record of the painting leaving Augustus’s inventory and no record of it entering the collections of the Gemäldegalerie, where the rest of the King’s works are now conserved.
One hypothesis about the genesis of this Leda suggests that the painting passed very quickly from Augustus III to his curator, Baron Carl Heinrich von Heineken.2 A document related to the sale of several paintings from the Baron’s personal collections, dated 12 December 1757, includes as lot 17 a painting by Cignaroli: “Leda regarde Jupiter transformé en Cigne; elle le tient sur ses genoux, un Amour tient un Carquois auprès d’elle; ces Figures, grandes come nature, sont peintes sur une toile de cinquante-sept pouces de haut, sur quarante-cinq de large. Le coloris et l’effet de ce Tableau sont très agréables.” 3 Although the dimensions do not match perfectly, they are remarkably close, and the description would seem to match the present canvas almost exactly. As the curator of the royal collection from 1746 to 1763, Baron Heineken was responsible for selecting and purchasing pictures for the King. It would seem plausible that he could have refused this painting on its arrival at court from Cignaroli’s studio, or otherwise obfuscated its arrival in order to acquire it for himself, thus explaining its absence from the royal collection.
The composition and coloring of this Leda reveal the influence of the Roman and Bolognese classical traditions on Cignaroli. The strong draftsmanship, precisely balanced composition and solidly modeled figures stand in marked contrast to the fluttery, transitory idioms of the Rococo that were embraced by many of the artists’ contemporaries.
1. Abecedario de P.J. Mariette, published by Archives de l’art français, Paris 1851-1853, p. 371.
2. Susane Juliane Warma, unpublished dissertation, 1988.
3. “Leda looks at Jupiter, transformed into a swan; she holds him on her lap, a Cupid holds a quiver close to her; these figures, life-size, are painted on a canvas fifty-seven inches tall by forty-five inches wide. The color and effect of this painting are very pleasing.”
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