Walter Crane was a prolific designer, illustrator and painter and a key contributor to both the Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic movements of the 19th century. The third child of Thomas Crane, an established portrait painter, and his wife, Marie Kearsley, he had an early introduction to painting from his father. Whilst he received no formal artistic training, upon the death of his father he was apprenticed to the esteemed wood-engraver, William James Linton. It was in Linton's Hatton Garden studio that Crane was first introduced to Ruskin, whose texts he was already familiar with. Following his apprenticeship, Crane continued to work as an illustrator primarily for children’s books, produced with Edmund Evans, a pioneer in colour printing. Crane was an astonishingly versatile artist, who worked across a wide variety of decorative arts including stained glass, wallpaper, textiles, ceramics, mosaics, tapestry and gesso reliefs. However, painting remained his primary passion, and as he wrote in an essay published in the Easter Art Annual of 1898: ‘Painting was the first craft I attempted, and it is the one I return to after following other kinds of design'.
Despite Crane’s prodigious artistic output, his works only appear at auction from time to time, and his large allegories and literary or mythological subjects are rare. Crane was particularly captivated by myth and folklore, and often used these tales as a means by which to explore the theme of rebirth and renewal. This can be evinced from the numerous paintings he executed dealing with the changing seasons, chiefly the associated joys of the coming of spring. Crane was particularly well received in Germany, since 'the symbolic and figurative character of their subjects [was] more in sympathy with the Teutonic mind'. Crane visited Bayreuth in 1893 which inspired him to complete a series of Wagnerian subjects, including: Swan Maidens (1894, the present work), Lohengrin (1895, location unknown), and The Valkyries' Ride (1903, location unknown). Crane’s popularity on the continent was cemented through a series of travelling exhibitions from the 1890s, with the greatest number of Crane’s works entering into private collections in Germany, partly due to the efforts of the German art dealer, Fritz Gurlitt. Swan Maidens is demonstrative of Crane's interest in the metamorphosis of form and in that respect relates to his well-known, Neptune's Horses (1893, Collection Neue Pinakothek, Munich), in which the waves are transformed into white stallions.
The myth of the swan maidens has been found in folklore under many different guises and within cultures across the globe. Tales of swan maidens stretch back to antiquity in Europe. Whilst many interpretations of the tale abound, the story follows that a hunter went down to a lake in order to shoot ducks. Instead of finding ducks he instead stumbled upon seven swan maidens, who had all removed their swan skins in order to swim in the lake. The hunter then proceeds to steal the skin of the youngest and prettiest maiden, who he then leads back to his cabin to make his wife. Though versions of the tale differ considerably, in most iterations the swan maiden finds her skin and flies back to her sisters, sometimes being followed by her contrite husband. Here Crane depicts the early part of the tale, as the seven swan maidens are shown bathing and in various degrees of transformation.