Leda and the Swan,
monogrammed at lower right: JW (ligated),
oil on canvas, 131 x 178 cm, framed
An 18th-century auction label on the reverse, inscribed “LEDA par WERNER 16 Louisdor”.
Preserved in a private collection in Aix-en-Provence at least since the early 20th century.
We are grateful to Dr. Peter Krückmann, Bayerische Schlösserverwaltung, for confirming the authenticity of the present work.
Previously unpublished and in a private collection for a long period of time, this signed painting is an important rediscovery. Joseph Werner, court painter to Louis XIV at the court of Versailles and Frederick I’s academy director in Prussia, is one of the most international artists of the 17th and early 18th centuries, exemplifying a painting style of the late Baroque that was less and less marked by national characteristics. Nevertheless it is also possible to observe regional idiosyncrasies in the artist’s oeuvre, which once again attracted the attention of art history only recently, after the first monograph on the artist had appeared in 1974 (J. Glaesemer, Joseph Werner – Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Barockmalerei, Zurich 1974).
And a very short time ago, another of Werner’s rare paintings appeared on the art market in Paris (The Triumph of Galatea, oil on canvas, Galerie Talarbardon et Gautier). It was only in 2012 that scholars succeeded in identifying the present painting, which comes from a Franco-American private collection, as one of the rare large-sized compositions by this Bern-based artist. A label apparently dating from the 18th century on the reverse side of the painting reveals that in those days the composition was still known as a work by Werner and that it was rated relatively highly then, with a price of 16 louis d’or. With its dramatic lighting, silvery flesh tones, and careful treatment of the shining draperies it certainly belongs to Werner’s mature period. It becomes obvious that during his long career the artist was under the spell of a great number of stylistic influences. The present composition certainly recalls the famous model by Michelangelo, while the liberal and open treatment of the flesh tones and the background, as well as the meticulous rendering of such elements as the shoes and the jewellery, is suggestive of Venetian painting and the art of Titian. Such details as the foot reflected in a streamlet are most charming details.
The artist was court painter to Louis XIV and later on became first director of the Academy of Arts and Mechanical Sciences in Berlin, which had been founded in 1696.
Leda’s physiognomy, robust corporeality, and silvery flesh tones refer to the allegorical figure of Abundance in a monumental painting Werner executed for the Grand Council of his native Bern in 1682. Werner repeated Leda’s pose mostly in miniature paintings for which he was praised at Versailles. The figure of Hermes in an allegorical copper engraving by Heinzelmann based on Werner’s invention seems to directly hark back to the Leda of the present painting. Werner also used a very similar pose for the figure of Diana in the miniature Diana after the Hunt (Schweizerisches Landesmuseum, Zurich), as well as for Flora (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie).
Joseph Werner was first trained by his father, a little-known painter after whom he was named, and subsequently by Matthäus Merian the Younger in Frankfurt am Main. Around 1654, he went to Rome, where he became enchanted by the work of Pietro da Cortona and Andrea Sacchi and made a name for himself as a painter of allegories and miniatures. Later on, he was called to Versailles and Paris by Louis XIV, where he advanced to become a celebrated history painter. Werner had a preference for portraying his sitters as gods and goddesses (compare his portrait of the Bavarian Electress Therese Kunigunde Sobieska as Diana). The Sun King he depicted as Apollo on his chariot. The artist’s next stop was Augsburg, a centre of the international art trade, where he worked for the Fuggers, among others. In 1680, during his stay in Augsburg, Werner painted an Allegory on the Marriage of the Grand Dauphin and Princess Maria Anna of Bavaria. Having completed the Triumph of Thetis for the Bavarian elector (a ceiling painting in Nymphenburg Palace in Munich), he returned to Bern via Innsbruck. Dr. Krückmann compares this painting of Thetis, which is still in situ, with the present painting. In 1696, the painter received a call to the newly founded Academy in Berlin. In his later years, he went back to Bern, where he died a celebrated town painter. Werner’s oeuvre unites contemporary tendencies of the German, Roman, and French Baroque within a charming symbiosis.
Specialist: Dr. Alexander Strasoldo