Leda and the Swan by Peter Paul Rubens was painted twice by the artist, first in 1601 and then again in the next year, 1602. During a visit to Rome, Rubens discovered Leda and the Swan by Italian artist Michelangelo, and was inspired to paint the subject for himself. The initial 1601 painting copies the Michelangelo version very closely, whilst the second and final version has more precision and uses brighter colours which are more typical of the Baroque style that Rubens is so famous for.
Rubens was a highly educated humanist scholar alongside being one of the most successful artists working in Northern Europe during his lifetime. Many of his works focus on depictions of famous scenes from Greek and Roman mythology, and Leda and the Swan is no different. The myth of Leda and the Swan has a number of different versions, however the most well known perhaps is the myth that saw Zeus transform himself into a swan so that he could copulate with Leda and have her bear him children. In the myth, Leda gives birth to 2 sets of twins, one pair fathered by Zeus and the other fathered by Tyndareus, the King of Sparta. Leda would also go on to give birth to Helen of Troy, who was hailed as the most beautiful woman in the world, and the eroticism and sensuality of the myth is very much highlighted by Rubens in the painting.
Leda is shown as fully nude, the curves of body realistically and sensually painted with a feeling of real, tangible flesh. She holds the swan close to her, its beak almost touching her lips, its head leaning gently against her naked breast. Whilst the coupling of the subject matter seem a little strange, Rubens manages to capture the relationship between the swan and Leda in a way that seems believable and even romantic. There is the feeling of movement within the painting too, another common Baroque theme, with the swan's wings open as if he has flown directly into Leda's arms. Meanwhile, Leda lounges languorously, all the curves and sinews of her body clearly on display, her feet leaving the ground as if the painting has captured the very moment Leda accepted the swan into her embrace. Leda's skin is alabaster white, but still has pink and peachy tones which contrast with the stark white of the swan's feathers. Behind them, the sun is setting, giving the painting a feeling of warmth and privacy as the day comes to an end and the night begins.