Private collection, Austria; sold Sotheby’s, London, 8 October 1986, lot 40; Private collection, Paris.
The painters Wilhelm List, Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser, Wilhelm Bernatzik and Max Kurzweil resigned in 1897 from the Vienna Kunstlerhaus to form the Vereinigung Bildender Künstler Österreichs. In challenging the dominant figures in the city’s art world these young painters followed the example of artists in France and Italy who also rejected the dictates of convention to take a new path forwards. In their embrace of new ideas, they rejected the cumbersome weight of the neo-baroque revival that had particularly marked the work of Klimt’s master, Hans Makart.
Wilhelm List’s first professor, Christian Griepenkerl, thought well of him and encouraged the young List to go to Munich and Paris where he studied with William Bouguereau but at the same time was exposed to the work of Puvis de Chavannes and the early symbolists. On his return to Vienna he fell in with other young artists who like List and Klimt wanted to break free of academic convention. Their building, now called The Secession, was designed by Herr Olbricht, with the inscription over the door “Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit.” (“To every age its art. To every art its freedom.”)
List painted landscapes and portraits, but after returning to Vienna he introduced the ideas and palette he had absorbed from the French and Belgian symbolists. In this painting he shows us the silver birches of the Vienna woods that are such a notable feature of some of Klimt’s landscapes, with a pair of swans, one floating gently while the other takes off, which may signify self-transformation, intuition, sensitivity, and even the soul, the sublime ‘higher Self’ within each person. List’s painting of Apollo Charming the Swans reminds us that for the ancient Greeks the swan was a masculine symbol, that Zeus disguised himself as a swan to seduce Leda and, in German mythology in particular, the Valkyries could transform themselves into swans.