The Setting of the Sun
  • Date: 1752
  • Object Type: Painting
  • Medium: Oil on canvas
  • Image size: 318 x 261 cm
  • Inv: P486
  • Location: Grand Staircase
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Further Reading
  • The 'Rising of the Sun' forms a pair with the 'Setting of the Sun' that was painted first and finished in 1752. Both were commissioned by Madame de Pompadour as full-scale models (cartoons) for the Gobelin tapestry manufacture as part of a private commission. The tapestries, finished in 1754 and 1755 respectively, briefly adorned the king's bedroom in the château de Bellevue, located between Paris and Versailles near Sèvres, a country house that had been built by Pompadour as a retreat for Louis XV where important political meetings could be stages with some secrecy and reduced court ceremonial.

    In the 1750s, Pompadour assumed the role as a political advisor and quasi-first minister to Louis XV, a role that is also expressed in the paintings and the tapestries. The nymph Théthys is seen as assisting Apollo when setting out on the chariot of the sun and welcomes him back after a day’s work, reflecting her claim to an important, but assisting political role at court. According to Ovid, the sun god Apollo drove his chariot across the heavens during the day, bringing light to the world, and sinking back beneath the waves in the evening, an image that had already been extensively used by Louis XIV as an allegory of his reign. Pompadour had Boucher refer back to models from Louis XIV reign by the sculptor Girardon and the painter Jouvenet in particular to link Louis XV's role with that of his predecessor and her own position with that of Madame de Maintenon, mistress and secret wife of Louis XIV.

    The paintings were shown at the Salon in 1753. An etching by Gabriel de Saint-Aubin shows clearly that the 'Rising' was shown on the left, the 'Setting' on the right. We do not know how exactly the tapestries were arranged in the king's bedroom, but they must have been installed in the corners on either side of the bed. Reactions to the display at the Salon were mixed, but much more positive than is usually claimed. Pompadour kept the paintings - a very unusual arrangement, as cartoons were usually retained by the Gobelins. She exhibited them in the guard room on the ground-floor of Bellevue.

    The compositions are famous as some of the greatest paintings of the mid-eighteenth century anywhere in Europe. Their elaborate compositions effortlessly fuse figures, water, clouds and light. They directly reflect the ideas of the French art critic Roger de Piles who described the first and overall impression of paintings as particularly important. His ideas had been crucial for the rise of the Rococo.