L eonardo da Vinci’s Leda and the Swan – one of the greatest drawings of the artist’s legendary career, and one of the jewels of the famed Devonshire Collection – will join our public exhibition Treasures from Chatsworth this summer in New York.
Created by Leonardo da Vinci in Florence or Milan circa 1506 – while he was working on the Mona Lisa – Leda and the Swan is a mythological preparatory drawing in pen, ink and wash. The work represents one of Da Vinci’s earliest designs for a composition of Leda, wife of the King of Sparta, and Jupiter, who has taken the form of a swan to seduce her. Hatching from the eggs at Leda's feet are their offspring: the twins, Helen (later Helen of Troy) and Clytemnestra, and Castor and Pollux.
The skill and originality that separates Da Vinci from his contemporaries is evident throughout this drawing. Da Vinci directs our eye through the narrative: Jupiter as the swan leans towards Leda, whose hand gestures to their children, hatching from eggs in the plants at her feet. The curved, hatched lines used to depict Leda's body create a sense of three-dimensionality, while the spiraling pen strokes of the emerging newborns imbue a dynamic sense of energy and movement.
Leda and the Swan likely was acquired for the Devonshire Collection by either the 2 or 3 Duke of Devonshire in the first half of the 18 century. Today, Chatsworth boasts one of the finest and most extensive private collections of Old Master drawings in the world.
Leda and the Swan is even more remarkable for its history, having almost been lost in the chaos of World War II. The work was requested for loan to an exhibition of Da Vinci’s work in Milan in 1939. Knowing that war was imminent, the 10 Duke of Devonshire was reluctant to do so, but was convinced knowing that King George VI was sending requested works from the royal collection. The work was not able to leave Italy after the exhibition, and survived World War II in storage at the Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome. When returned to Chatsworth following the war, it bore the white marking now seen in the center of the drawing.
Sadly, the painting for which this drawing served as a study has itself not survived. Today, it is best shown in copies by artists who worked with the artist.
Sotheby’s Treasures from Chatsworth exhibition will mark the first public viewing of Leda and the Swan in the United States since The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York’s ground-breaking 2003 exhibition Leonardo da Vinci, Master Draftsman.