Throughout his career, but notably after his return to Paris in the early 1730s from an extended stay in Italy, Boucher made allegorical decorations depicting putti at play and work. Such paintings evolved from the Greek God of Love, Eros, and his corresponding Latin personification, Cupid, of course, but for visual precedents, Boucher looked to Renaissance paintings by masters such as Titian (The Venus Worship, in the Prado, Madrid) and Parmigianino, which themselves referred consciously to sculpted bas-reliefs from Roman antiquity. The somewhat blurry distinction between Cupids and Cherubim secured the putto's entry into both the boudoir and the High Altar, and in Boucher's most ambitious compositions the pudgy, winged infants invariably play prominent supporting roles attending the God's of Olympus or the Fathers of the Christian Church.
In addition, Boucher fully understood that putti could serve purposes other than their traditional part as otherworldly attendants, and he ingeniously exploited their ornamental possibilities in autonomous decorative panels such as the present painting, in which they are featured without adult companions. Although many French painters of the mid-18th century would specialize in creating similarly opulent interior decor, Boucher was its undisputed master, and the vogue for these pictures lasted his entire career.
Much of Boucher's success in the genre lay in his lifelong fascination with the appearance and movements of actual babies, which he carefully studied. A devoted father himself, he made innumerable drawings of babies that meticulously captured their peculiar anatomies and distinctive behaviour with palpable affection, and he translated them effortlessly into painted compositions of genuine charm and pictorial novelty. In the present painting, made near the end of his life when the artist was in his mid-60s, the three amorini display all the characteristics of true infants, despite their pink and white wings, allegorical function and celestial berth. They hold various instruments of music-making, including a flute, a horn and musical scores; a discarded tambourine lay beside them. Yet they do not actually make music: rather, a mischievous putto on the right swings a sharp-pointed quill at a pair of startled doves, while a flute-holding putto starts in fear; the middle cupid quietly reads from his musical manuscript oblivious to the commotion unfolding around him.
The painting is vigorously executed in Boucher's characteristic last manner, as much drawn as painted in thick, rhythmically applied strokes of pigment, with pale colours and bright highlights that allowed the composition to be read clearly from over a low doorway, where it would originally have been installed (no doubt in a small salon or music room). The present lot closely relates to three overdoors of putti subjects, each signed and dated '1764', formerly in the Rothschild collections in Vienna (Ananoff, 589, 590 & 591). As with them, the first owner and original location of the present lot is unknown, but one can presume it to have been made in response to a commission of some importance. He often designated the painting of overdoor decorations to skilled studio hands (Fragonard did a few), but here the work is obviously his own. It is painted with an intelligence, economy and mastery entirely comparable to that found in his last masterpiece, the ambitious cycle of large mythological decorations made in 1769 for the Paris townhouse of Bergeret de Frouville (now divided between the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; A.670, 671, 674, 675, 676, 677), and represents, as they do, the final flowering of his style.