Sidney Nolan moved to America in 1958 on a Harkness Fellowship, which enabled him to live in New York for two years. During this period, he created his first series of works that didn't have a distinctly Australian theme, inspired by the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan.
According to the legend, the god Zeus visited Leda, the wife of the King of Sparta, after transforming himself into a swan. The union resulted in the birth of the beautiful Helen of Troy.
In Nolan's image, the two central figures in the legend, who are still to consummate their love, are timeless and ageless. They float against a black background, highlighted with flecks of blue and green, with the only contextualisation a golden swan in a serpentine coil in front of the body of Leda. Leda turns to look at Zeus, her webbed orange hand already a metaphor for the child she is to bear, who was incarnate as an egg before developing human characteristics.
In 1960, Nolan and his wife, Cynthia, moved back to Putney, on the banks of the Thames in London, where he continued to work on his Leda and the Swan series. London's lights reflected on the dark surface of the water have been attributed as one source of inspiration for the way in which Nolan has brought the scene to life in this series; the movement of his daughter while swimming is thought to be another.
The series further cemented Nolan's reputation internationally, with the preview of the works at Mathiesen Gallery in London selling out within two days. The artist, at the mid-point of his career, was "in all senses, on his way at the age of forty-three. He was critically acclaimed, something of a lion, and financially successful. Looking at the Leda series, it is impossible to deny him the justice of this triumphthe best are great and timeless works of art, and show the growth not only of his technical skill but also of his intellectual versatility and his imaginative power." (T.G. Rosenthal, Sidney Nolan , London, 2002, p.153).