Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Leda and Zeus Signed with initials and dated 1933

Duncan Grant 1885-1978

Leda and Zeus, Duncan Grant
Oil, watercolour and charcoal on canvas
20th Century
27 ½ x 36 ½ in. (69.8cm x 92.7cm)
Richard Philp Gallery, Grosvenor House, 2008. Private Collection, UK.
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The turn of the Twentieth Century witnessed an over-haul in British art with the more rigid formalities of the academic Victorian age giving way to an increasingly liberal and gestural approach. From this epoch of change emerged a number of young artists who would challenge convention and help carve the exhilarating identity of modern British art. This exceptional work by Duncan Grant epitomises the freshness and dynamism of which they were capable.

One of the most influential protagonists of this period was the Bloomsbury Group – a set of upper middle-class artists, writers and thinkers whose collaborative inter-disciplinary influence was central to artistic developments in the first half of the twentieth century. Members of the group included amongst others; art critic Roger Fry, economist John Maynard Keynes, writer Virginia Woolf and biographer (and cousin of Grant) Lytton Strachey.

In 1913 Fry founded the Omega Workshops and invited Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell to play central roles as creative directors. The aim of the workshop was break the barrier between the fine and decorative arts and to amalgamate the expressive graphic designs of the Bloomsbury Group with less established art forms including stained glass, furniture, textiles and painted murals.

Despite Grant’s sexual inclination towards men (he was at one point a lover of his cousin Lytton Strachey), an intimate relationship began to develop between Grant and Bell which would ultimately last their lifetime. Their support and encouragement of each other’s work also led to a number of collaborations, most notably on the series of murals for John Maynard Keynes’ rooms at King’s College, Cambridge, finished in 1922.

Grant’s popularity rapidly rose during the inter-war years, helped in part by his involvement as a costume and set designer for a number of popular performances including The Enchanted Grove and the ballet Swan Lake. It was during the late 1920s and '30s that Grant began to explore darker, more sensual classical themes in his work, drawing influence in particular from Greek mythology, as seen in the present work. The subject we see here is taken from the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan. Zeus, who was in love with Leda, the wife of Tyndareus, king of Sparta, came to her beside a river in the disguise of a swan and seduced her. Leda then laid two eggs from which emerged the twins Castor and Pollux and Helen of Troy and Clytemnestra.

Although this theme has been explored at length by generations of previous artists from Leonardo da Vinci through to Paul Cezanne, Grant has approached the theme differently by refraining to present Leda as an object of lust and beauty. Instead Grant has interweaved the two forms together and achieved dynamicity and tension through a more gestural display of technique, using a combination of oils, watercolours and charcoals and demonstrating a mastery of post impressionistic technique pioneered on the continent.
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