One of the principal activities of the young Fragonard when he was an assistant in François Boucher's workshop in the 1750s was to participate in the execution of decorative paintings that were installed above doorways in the elaborate boiserie paneling then fashionable in Parisian townhouses. If Boucher is remembered as a painter of grand mythologies and refined cabinet pictures, it was nonetheless these modestly scaled decorative commissions that kept his large workshop employed. Often set in a celestial realm, usually depicting voluptuous female nudes in the guise of goddesses or muses surrounded by a large cohort of flying amorini, these decorations tended to be designed in sets of two or four canvases (sometimes more), and were usually linked by traditional allegorical themes, such as the Times of Day or the Four Seasons. With relatively small shifts and changes, Boucher and his assistants could produce an almost limitless range of variations to these compositions.
Fragonard took up the practice from the start of his independent career, and eventually brought to it a greater concentration and variety than did his master, while maintaining the conventional iconography that Boucher established for the genre. Fragonard brought his unexcelled skills as a history painter to two exquisite mythological overdoors representing the Times of Day that he executed soon after leaving Boucher's studio. In Dawn (private collection; Cuzin no. 55), Aurora, the goddess of the Dawn, is shown in a blaze of light with the morning star above her head, "rising from the saffron bed" and "sprinkling fresh rays upon the earth". Accompanied by a bleary-eyed putto, she scatters roses upon the sleeping figure of Night, whose eyes remain closed in the darkness below as her covers herself with a heavy blue blanket. In its pendant, Night (National Gallery of Art, Washington; C.56), Diana, goddess of the Moon, ventures upon the sleeping mortal, Endymion, and, overwhelmed by the shepherd's unsurpassed beauty, she grants him eternal sleep, ensuring that the boy will remain forever young. Fragonard's mirrored compositions are rendered in complimentary high-keyed palettes of rose and gold for Dawn and silvery grey and ink blue for Night. Despite the inventiveness and the designs and exquisiteness of their color schemes, Fragonard's pair of paintings owes an obvious debt to the masterpieces made by Boucher only a few years earlier for the Marquise de Pompadour, The Rising of the Sun and The Setting of the Sun (1752-1753; The Wallace Collection, London).
The present pair of paintings depicting Day ("Le jour") and Night ("La nuit") date from considerably later in Fragonard's career, after he had returned to Paris from five years at the French Academy in Rome, and achieved public success with his vast history painting, Coresus and Callirhoe (1765; Musée du Louvre, Paris). In June 1770, the Comtesse du Barry, the king's official mistress, purchased four existing overdoors by Fragonard for one of the rooms of the old château of Louveciennes, acquiring them not from Fragonard directly, but through the portraitist Drouais. The four paintings were altered in size and format to transform them into a uniform set representing the Times of Day. While it had occasionally been proposed that the present Day and Night were two of the Louveciennes set (see Burlington Magazine, 1953, op. cit.), George Wildenstein established conclusively that the four paintings of the set consist of The Three Graces (Dawn) in the Musée Fragonard, Grasse (C.148); Venus and Cupid (Day), in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin (C.150); Cupid Setting the Universe Ablaze (Dusk) in the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire de Toulon (C.149); and Night Spreads Her Veils (Night) in a private collection (C.151).
It is not known for whom the present Day and Night were painted, and they were unpublished before they came to light in an exhibition in Hamburg in 1952; nevertheless, they have been universally accepted as autograph works by Fragonard by all subsequent authorities. Indeed, the early history of such decorative paintings is often obscure as they were usually regarded as part of the furnishings and not individually inventoried in the 18th century. The paintings can, however, be quite accurately dated. It is recorded (see Burlington Magazine, 1953, op.cit.) that an inscription in an 18th-century hand appeared on the back of the old frame on Night: 'envoy les chssis mr. Fragonard au louvre'. As Fragonard was not given a studio in the Louvre until 1765, this inscription suggests the earliest date the paintings could have been completed. However, the style of the paintings indicates a dating some years after Fragonard moved into his lodgings. Their open, airy compositions, practiced effects of sparkling sunlight and sulfurous twilight, and effortless command of twisting, spinning and interlaced baby bodies more likely place them around 1770, just after the Louviciennes Times of Day (c. 1768-1769) and shortly before Madame du Barry's series, The Progress of Love (c. 1772-1773), now in The Frick Collection, New York. The pendants are closely related to three grisaille paintings of pairs of putti in trompe-l'oeil stone niches that are in a private collection (C.249-251).
Most remarkable about Day and Night is the way in which Fragonard has reconceived subjects that he had painted so often in the past. Here, he has abandoned the traditional narratives of mythology and history as the basis for his compositions, focusing exclusively on the supernumeraries of the mythological stage, its putti. Fragonard has chosen to spin no narrative, tell no story. As in his famous Groupes d'enfants dans le ciel (Musee du Louvre, Paris), which Diderot characterized as 'a nice big omelet of children in the sky' when it was exhibited in the Salon of 1767, his subjects are embodied by nothing more than a rolling, gamboling riot of cupids. In Day, the tireless putti poke and prod one another as they frantically chase hapless doves through sun-dappled skies; in Night, undone by the day's exertions, the exhausted, sprawling amorini sleep on inviting pillows made of inky blue and shimmering silver clouds. No erudition is required to understand or interpret his subjects: they are presented in their most elemental guise.
Yet tremendous resources of wit and sophistication have been employed in rendering these simplest interpretations of the Times of Day. Using the sparest of means, Fragonard develops his figures in three dimensions, capturing with extraordinary authenticity the appearance, facial expressions and propulsive movements of infants at play and at rest. They fully inhabit their space and are enveloped by it, although it consists of little more than translucent clouds and subtly modulated effects of light. The shimmering rose, gold, ivory and sky blue palette of Day is almost palpably joyous, and the pearl, silver and grey-black shadows that bisect the rising moon and envelope the pale pink bodies of the sleeping cupids in Night create a tranquilizing mood that perfects embodies its subject. Working in a genre that was virtually founded by Boucher, Fragonard has re-imagined and reinvented it with singular originality and unequalled delight.