Aristide Maillol (1861-1944)

1900, terracotta

Why is this work so important?

The small Leda never fails to arouse admiration. The work does not ‘convey’ anything in particular, but attains a certain from of perfection in its proportions, which is also evident in the small-scale and monumental versions of the work. In doing so, it opened the way towards abstraction.


In Greek Mythology, Leda, the Queen of Sparta, is seduced by Zeus, who took the form of a swan. All the greatest artists, from the Renaissance onwards have represented the Greek myth. But in this version by Maillol, the swan is conspicuous by its absence… “The swan was no good. I dumped it,” Maillol explained simply. As he worked on this sculpture, he simplified the form to keep only the nude figure of the young woman. He has a desire to continually strip away the unnecessary to the absolute maximum. Here, only the title allows us to identify the mythological subject matter, which is only a pretext for representing pure form. The work presented here is in terracotta. Maillol’s inventive genius prompted him to build his own kiln to fire his creations, but they were always successful. His terracotta figures are sometimes works of art in their own right, as here, while others were used as preparatory studies, either full size or on a smaller scale, prior to the final sculpture cast in bronze.

In detail

The presence of Zeus is suggested by Leda’s attitude of surprise: we may imagine that she is turning towards him as she makes a gesture of refusal with her hand.

Did you know?

In his period, this “sculpture of the immobile” to which Maillol aspired was a full-blown artistic revolution. He broke radically from the kind of descriptive sculpture that was typical of the nineteenth century. In this respect, he has often been opposed to Rodin, the other great nineteenth-century French sculptor.