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Reynolds and Michelangelo

Leda and the Swan was one of the three paintings that Sir Joshua Reynolds rated most highly in his collection (along with a Correggio and a Leonardo). He thought it was by Michelangelo, whom he esteemed above all other artists, and described it as among "the greatest curiosities in this nation".

Leda, in Greek mythology, was seduced or raped by Jupiter, king of the gods, who deceived her by transforming himself into a swan. She reclines here on an opulent red fabric, wrapped around the swan and kissing its beak. Her pose, with one knee raised and one arm behind her, echoes a sculpture by Michelangelo, called 'Night'.

For Reynolds, collecting was a lifelong passion, a "great game". He bought pictures for intellectual and practical reasons. When delivering his 'Discourses', a series of lectures he gave at the Royal Academy between 1769 and 1790, he used paintings from his collection as teaching tools, to illustrate his theories.

Reynolds displayed his collection of Old Master paintings – rich in Venetian Renaissance and northern European art in his town house in Leicester Fields, now known as Leicester Square. Having art close at hand fed his curiosity about the technique of earlier artists, and he sometimes rubbed the surfaces of their paintings or added to them. By physically reworking these works, Reynolds imposed his own ideas and style on the pictures he owned.

Reynolds’s skills as a connoisseur of painting were often questioned by his contemporaries. After his death, one collector even claimed that his collection was "swarming" with false Michelangelos. Indeed, this canvas is now considered a copy after the great Italian master.