In 1729 François Lemoyne was commissioned to paint a huge chimneypiece-decoration for the Salon de Paix at Versailles; his subject was Louis XV Giving Peace to Europe. In this ambitious allegorical painting, Louis XV hands an olive branch, the symbol of peace, to a smiling Europe. Behind them we see the Temple of Janus with its doors firmly closed, despite the efforts of Discord, who tries to force them open. Minerva, seated on a cloud at the top right of the composition, gestures to Mercury, who symbolizes Commerce, to ensure that Discord is prevented from upsetting the new-found peace. At the bottom right of the painting, a female figure symbolizing Piety, with a divine flame burning in her head, offers the two infants, held by Fecundity, to Europe.
The present painting is either a première pensée or perhaps a reduced replica of an original. Lemoyne's depiction follows an age-old tradition, traced by Cesare Ripa to ancient medals, of depicting Fecundity as 'a matron of pleasant countenance' holding infants. 'The attitude of caressing two children' Ripa observed, 'expresses one of the greatest consolations of the married state, and indicates the happiness and delight that mankind enjoy in rearing their beloved offspring'. Lemoyne ingeniously adapted the image into his chimneypiece allegory to symbolize the continuity and growth of the French line; indeed, several eighteenth-century authors saw in the protective maternal figure and young infants a reference to Louise-Elizabeth and Anne-Henriette, Louis XV's eldest children, born 14 August 1727.
It is difficult to trace the provenance of the present painting, recognized as the finest of the many extant versions of this popular theme. A similar painting, described as 'une belle et gracieuse etude finie', was owned by the eighteenth-century collector La Live de Jully, but the dimensions are larger all around than those of the present lot (see Bailey, op.cit., 1988). In his catalogue raisonné of Lemoyne's works, Prof. Jean-Luc Bordeaux (op.cit., 1984, p. 115) connects the present painting - which he describes as Lemoyne's 'finished first idea' for the figural group in the Versailles composition - with a depiction of Charity listed among Lemoyne's effects at the time of his death and valued at 12.5l livres, but as the inventory gives no indication of size, such a relationship remains hypothetical.