Although a significant body of erotic writing from 18th century France has come down to us (often illustrated with explicit engravings), few sexually graphic works of fine art seem to have survived, and it is uncertain whether very many were produced. Even the most enlightened collector living in an age of anti-clericalism and materialistic thought might have blushed to display on his walls the sort of imagery he would savor when it was bound behind the discreet moroccan covers of a livre philosophique. There can be no doubt, however, that as the century progressed, a market for erotic pictures of high aesthetic quality was sustained by reputable artists willing to satisfy the demands of 'libertine' patrons.
However, only a few of these pictures are known today. For example, days before he died, Watteau destroyed most of his works which he felt were lewd, and one that escaped destruction--the glorious little panel, The Remedy, in the Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena--was mutilated, either at that time or in the years that followed. Boucher certainly made the occasional explicit picture, but only two--an oval pair depicting toilettes intime (A. Ananoff, François Boucher, 1976, I, pp. 325-7, nos. 210 and 212)--have been identified.
The present painting of two nude lovers still has the power to startle, in part because of the very incongruousness--for modern eyes--of the treatment the subject receives. With meticulous attention paid to the harem-like setting, and shimmering brushwork in the bedclothes that is reminiscent of Fragonard's 'Dutch' interiors of the 1780s, Les Deux Amies is a remarkably pretty scene of voluptuous abandon; its candid subject matter might suggest Courbet avant la lettre, but its charming sensibility is entirely dix-huitieme siècle.
The attribution of the painting to Jean-Jacques Lagrenée is traditional, and has been supported by Marianne Roland Michel, who knows the painting from a photograph. Its manner is in keeping with that of Lagrenée the younger, the brother and pupil of the better-known history painter, Louis Lagrenée (for whom, see lot 160 in this sale).