Ovid's Metamorphoses provided sculptors with a wealth of subjects to sculpt scenes that were erotic but also proper. Even so, representations of Leda’s seduction by Zeus, who came to her as a swan, were rare in France in the first quarter of the 18th century. Souchal counts only four depictions of the subject during the reign of Louis XIV: a terracotta bozzetto by Pierre II Legros (never made into a full-scale work), a marble piece by Simon Hurtrelle (known only from an etching), Jean Thierry’s reception piece from 1717 (Louvre, inv. n° MR2100), and Corneille Van Clève's bronze of which the best examples are in Dresden (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, inv. n° H4 154/28) and the Louvre (inv. n° RF 4753).
As well as reductions of models taken from Antiquity, the great Italian Renaissance sculptors and Giambologna’s subjects from Florence, bronzes began to show more originality and became works in their own right. In Paris, sculptors like Philippe Bertrand, Robert Le Lorrain and Corneille Van Clève were to elevate the art of bronze statuettes to new heights, an avenue that had already been opened by the more Baroque Michel Anguier followed by Simon Hurtrelle and René Frémin, or the somewhat more tortured works of Lespignola.
French foundries developed greater skill in the casting of statuettes, and certain sculptors like Van Clève or Le Lorrain - whose families had been goldsmiths and who knew how to work with metal - are said to have participated in casting their own works. An inventory taken after Van Clève's death mentions his Leda and other models designed to be turned into bronzes and sold. He had some of them delivered to his home “to be displayed to the public and sold more easily”. (cf. G. Bresc-Bautier, G. Scherf, op. cit., p. 404). These include two pairs of great mythological lovers, Diane et Endymion and Bacchus et Ariane, of which the Boston Museum of Fine Art has two copies (inv. n° 1931.153 and 1931.154). They share some similarities with our bronze, not just their theme, but also the multidimensional composition, the swirling drapery and sensual poses.
Robert Le Lorrain took an interest in the market for bronze statuettes while still a pensionnaire at the French Academy in Rome, much to the dismay of the director, who commented bitterly to the royal superintendent: “Mr Le Lorrain has reason to be pleased with his stay, given that he has worked solely for his own interests. He has sent most of the models he made to Paris. I thought they were designed solely to demonstrate his abilities, but have learned that they are to be sold to foundries to be cast in bronze. He will be able to sell them more easily in Paris than here.” (cf. G. Bresc-Bautier, G. Scherf, op. cit., p. 416). Such statuettes were a major part of his work. There are his Andromeda, a version of which is in the Louvre (inv. n° RF3399), or his groups Vertumne et Pomone (Honolulu Museum of Art, inv. n° 3580.1) and Vénus et Adonis (Mobilier National, Paris, inv. n° GML 85581).
Among the new classical subjects cast in the Parisian foundries, some models remain anonymous today, including our Leda and the Swan. This is the case with the Vénus désarmant l’Amour of which Sotheby’s of Paris sold a copy on 15 June 2016 for 129,000€, and another with the same subject paired with Psyché découvrant l’Amour, both of which came from Auguste le Fort’s collection and are attributed to Van Clève's circle (Dresden, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, inv. n° H4 153/3 et H4 153/7). Other examples are the pair inspired by Giambologna’s models, Rape of a Sabine by a Roman Horseman and Nessus carrying off Deianira in the Wallace Collection (inv. n° S 116 et S 132).
It can be very difficult to identify these anonymous French bronzes because they can be strikingly similar to those of their Italian counterparts, particularly the Florentine sculptors Massimiliano Soldani-Benzi, Giovanni Battista Foggini (1652-1725) and Giuseppe Piamontini. An Amour debout tirant une flèche de son carquois previously attributed to Soldani Benzi is now recognised as a Van Clève and the group L’Education de l’Amour at the Hermitage Museum, thought to be Florentine, could actually be from a Parisian studio. Florentine bronzes do bear some similarities to our Leda, particularly the loose movement of the drapery, the realism of the base and the horizontal, multidimensional composition. The group Léda et le cygne and its partner Ganymède et l’aigle, by Soldani Benzi (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, inv. n° M.60-1984 and M.59-1984), the Vénus arrachant les ailes de l’Amour by the same artist (Prince of Liechtenstein collection, inv. n° SK1501) or the bronze Hercule and Iole by Foggini (Victoria and Albert Musuem, inv. n° A.9-1956) are also clear examples of how Florence and Paris influenced each other.
We believe that the Leda and the Swan group presented here is the only known casting of this model. There is a degree of Mannerism in its composition comparable to Etienne Delaune’s engraving (circa 1518-1583/95) after Michaelangelo’s Leda and the Swan (fig. 1). The original painting has been lost but was mentioned in France in Francis I’s collections. The sculptor of our bronze was probably inspired by this High Renaissance model that was widely known in Europe thanks to etchings. The remarkable quality of the casting, superb chasing and subtle brown patina, the large size and the rarely depicted and eminently sensual subject make this bronze an exceptional rediscovery. It is a credit to the Parisian sculptor-founders active under Louis XIV and the Regency and whose works were to be found in the most prestigious European collections of the 18th century.
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