The legend surrounding John Graham persists long after his death, complicating his placement in art history. Throughout his entire life and career, he mingled fact and fiction, self-mythologizing to conceal or simply embellish his true background. Much of this biographical information, although entertaining and charming, remains contradictory and confusing for scholars, as Graham would likely have intended. Nearly everything in Graham's painting can be a form of appropriation. Extravagant and often arrogant claims that he grew up in a household where witchcraft was practiced, escaped imprisonment from the Czar in Russia, and that he was entrenched in the French post-Cubist development remain uncertain. Graham's imagination is reflected in his oeuvre, in which, as an aesthetic chameleon, he features the original and untried. He exhibited great range and versatility in draftsmanship, dabbling and shifting in technique, finally arriving at his own characteristic style and discrete vocabulary of images as a middle-aged artist.
Irrespective of Graham's historic reality, he surely influenced in what Irving Sandler would claim as the "triumph of American painting." As early as 1930, perhaps in unconscious anticipation of post-war gestural abstraction, Graham described painting in a letter to Duncan Phillips as "an arduous task with great pain and joy, but more pain and wages for wisdom. Gut artists cannot stop creating though he knows all the sorrow that follows." Though Graham himself was not an abstract painter, he certainly understood the significance of gesture and was a precursor to action painters of the future.
In the 1940s, John Graham, remaining a realist among abstractionists, began painting Neo-classical figurative works, which evolved into his signature series of Women and Soldiers. Like other female subjects portrayed by Graham , Linda and the Swan dons crossed eyes, a device the artist elaborates on"Cross-eyed women? Yes, it's a charming thing for women to be a little crossed eyed; it indicates modesty, a certain confusion, a little perplexity. And similarity is very boring. If my women appear more than a little cross-eyed, that's because in art you transpose things, you magnify. That's part of the art-to intensify." (J. Graham as quoted in E. Green, John Graham: Artist and Avatar, exh. cat., The Phillips Collection, Washington, 1987, p. 64).
As with many of Graham's paintings, Linda and the Swan features an altered re-telling of a mythological subject, in this case the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan. As the story goes, Jupiter took the form of a swan and raped or seduced Leda on the same night she slept with her husband. Certainly the obvious taboo and erotic overtones appealed to Graham, a frightening subject that is only made more so by Graham's own statements on sexual attraction. "Women who cry and suffer and women who insult me particularly excite me sexually. Mistrust arouses my fury." (Ibid, p. 66).
Linda and the Swan is raw in its execution and absolutely precise in its composition. There is a perceived terror in the clotted texture of the subjects blood red hair slashing down her left shoulder, piercing the broad expanse of her exposed flesh, creating a heightened sense of vulnerability. The approaching swan, executed in a flurry of dry brushstrokes is at once hypothetical and threateningly real. Graham has created a densely packed and highly realized picture that is alarmingly and impossibly beautiful. Consider when he writes: "beauty cannot be foreseen. Beauty is the beautiful expanded to the verge of ugliness." (J. Graham, System and Dialectics of Art, New York, 1937, p. 133). Linda and the Swan, stands compositionally and symbolically as a tour de force within Graham's women.