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
  • Of Boucher's spectacular pair showing 'The Rising' and 'The Setting of the Sun', this work was painted first and finished in 1752. Both were commissioned privately by Mme de Pompadour as full-scale models or cartoons for the Gobelin tapestry manufacture. 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. This country house was built by Pompadour as a retreat where Louis XV could conduct important political meetings in privacy, away from the strictures of court etiquette.

    By the 1750s, Pompadour had assumed the role of political advisor and quasi-minister to Louis XV, a role that is also expressed in the paintings and the tapestries. The nymph Tethys is seen assisting Apollo as he sets out on the chariot of the sun; she welcomes him back after a day's work. According to Ovid, the sun god Apollo drove his chariot across the heavens during the day, bringing light to the world. He sinks back beneath the waves in the evening, an image that had already been extensively used by Louis XIV as an allegory of his reign. Boucher's references to the sculptor Girardon and the painter Jouvenet 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 of 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 to 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 represent 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 importance of the first impression.