Important Australian + International Fine Art
6 May 2015


(1917 - 1992)

synthetic polymer paint on composition board

152.5 x 122.0 cm

signed with initial lower centre: N
dated and inscribed verso: F / STUDIO / 2nd June 1960 / FOLKESTONE

$45,000 - 65,000
Sold for $50,400 (inc. BP) in Auction 39 - 6 May 2015, Melbourne

Estate of the artist
Bonhams, Melbourne, 13 October 2014, lot 56
Private collection, Melbourne


Possibly Sidney Nolan: retrospective exhibition, Arts Centre New Metropole, Folkestone, United Kingdom, 21 February – 18 April 1970

Catalogue text

In June 1960, Sidney Nolan exhibited his Leda and Swan paintings at Matthiesen Gallery in London, and its success firmly cemented his status as the Australian artist of his generation. By embracing the myth of Leda's seduction by the swan (the Greek god Zeus, in disguise), he found a universal story which spoke deeply to audiences far from his homeland. In a later interview Nolan observed that 'in a way, Leda [is] the idea of a nude figure being overcome by some force or other 'of Leda being overwhelmed by God' Of course, this runs through the Greek tragedies.'1

The series had its roots in the four months that Nolan with his wife Cynthia lived on the Greek island of Hydra during the winter of 1955, and an epic road trip undertaken two years later in the company of his step-daughter Jinx, across the length and breadth of the United States. Throughout his long career, Sidney Nolan was renowned for his distinctive method of working, with long interludes of contemplation bracketed by great flurries of intense, concentrated activity. Inspired in part by a chance vision of Jinx swimming underwater in a canyon during their American odyssey, Nolan experimented with a mixture of oils and polyvinyl acetate applied with squeegees, fingers and brush. This fluid technique enhanced the perception that his figures were swimming within the paint, sometimes above, often through, the watery surface as they flowed in and out of visibility.

Following confirmation of the Matthiesen Gallery exhibition, Nolan set to work again. Cynthia Nolan recorded the process: 'During the day he painted on the floor, first placing areas of colour on prepared board, next sweeping on polyvinyl acetate until the whole 4 x 5 feet area was thick with paint, then seizing a short-handled squeegee and slashing and wiping, cornering and circling like a skater, until another painting was completed 'Now over and over again, he was painting Leda and the Swan.'2 All the paintings shared the same title and the example on offer here is set within a moody dark green. It is a comparatively gentle image, almost a courtship dance, in which the swan sweeps across Leda's body to gaze longingly at her face as she raises her arm in submission. The scraping of the squeegee has left translucent passages of blue, green and yellow which glow like stained glass enhancing the effect of a dream-like limbo.

The Matthiesen Gallery exhibition opened on 9 June 1960 and the bulk of the paintings were sold within two days. Such was the acclaim that purchasers included Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Sir Kenneth Clark, the Earl of Drogheda (Chairman of both the Financial Times and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden), Agatha Christie, and the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.

1. Nolan, S., quoted in: Souter, G., 'An artist who stood in the acid', Sydney Morning Herald, 7 October 1967, p. 2
2. Nolan, C., Open Negative - an American Memoir, Macmillan, London, 1967, p. 224.