Though traditionally entitled The Swan King, the picture clearly represents Lohengrin, the mysterious knight of the Holy Grail who is the hero of Wagner's opera of the same name. In fact it seems to illustrate the scene in the first Act in which he appears in a boat drawn by a swan to be Elsa's champion in her trial by combat. The opera received its London première in 1875, and had been performed a hundred times at Covent Garden by 1899. However, the immediate inspiration for Crane's picture must have been the performance he attended at Bayreuth in the summer of 1893. In his Reminiscences (1907) he described the experience in terms very comparable to the mood of the painting. 'I recall', he wrote, 'the wonderful effect of the first bars of the overture on the violas - the far-off swan-music - a delicate vibration in the air, at first, rather than a sound - stealing on the silence in the darkness in a way that reminded one of a creeping mist over the lowlands, or the silver windings of a river flowing ever nearer, until it reached one's feet in full flood.'
Crane's visit to Bayreuth found echoes in two other pictures, The Swan Maidens (1894) and The Valkyrie's Ride (1903), and there is a Wagnerian dimension to many of his later allegories. Interesting links also exist between Wagner and Burne-Jones, while Tannhäuser inspired a painting by Frank Dicksee (1890) and drawings by Beardsley (1891, 1896). Nonetheless, Crane's feeling for Wagnerian subjects remained something of an anomaly in England, where they were never so popular as they were with European Symbolists.
The compliment, moreover, was returned. Although his children's books and decorative work were highly appreciated at home, Crane's paintings had far more success in Germany. As he himself put it, 'possibly... the symbolic and figurative character of their subjects (was) more in sympathy with the Teutonic mind'. The keenest collector of his work in Germany was Ernst Seeger of Berlin, who owned at least six major examples. They included The Chariots of the Hours (1887), which won a gold medal at the Munich International Exhibition in 1895, and The Bridge of Life (1884), which was sold in these Rooms on 30 March 1990 (lot 512). Other works entered public collections. Neptune's Horses (1893) went to Munich, A Masque of the Four Seasons (1905-9) to Darmstadt, and The Fate of Persephone, which had never found a buyer even though it had been exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery as long ago at 1878, to the Kunsthalle at Karlsruhe. The Symbolist painter Hans Thoms was the director when this purchase was made in 1902, and he bought yet another major work by Crane, The Mower (1901), for himself. In due course he must have sold or given this to the Kunsthalle, where it remains, although The Fate of Persephone was de-accessioned in 1923. After spending many years in America, it was sold in these Rooms on 12 June 2002 (lot 44) for £380,000, a world record price for a painting by Walter Crane.