Lagrenée was in the vanguard of late eighteenth-century artists who moved away from the elaborate and ornate style that was popular at the time toward a more restrained, classicizing style. The majority of his works depicted mythological scenes derived from Greco-Roman sources.
Rooms decorated with elaborate painting cycles were common in the eighteenth century. Lagrenée is known to have completed several commissions for wealthy estates, including the royal compound at Versailles. Midday and Sunset are overdoors (that is, paintings affixed above doorways) and were most likely taken from such a decorated room. These rooms often encompassed particular thematic or allegorical cycles, such as “The Five Senses,” “The Arts and Sciences,” “The Planets and Continents,” and The Four Seasons.”
Midday and Sunset are half of a cycle depicting the stages of the sun as it travels across the sky — Dawn, Midday, Sunset and Night (Dawn and Night belong to a private collector in France.). Each painting has an alternate title, which indicates the iconography depicted. Dawn is also called The Rising of Aurora; Midday is Apollo Dispersing the Winds and Storms; Sunset is Apollo in the Bosom of Thetis and Night is The Night Covers with Her Veil the Happy Lovers. In each painting, the figures in the secondary title, (personifications of the dawn, sun, sea and night, respectively), represent the physical journey of the sun. For example, at midday, the sun is high in the sky, and clouds dissipate, leaving the atmosphere calm. Thus, Apollo sits on a cloud high in the sky, with a bright circle of light that radiates from his head, while the winds, represented by the human figures on the right of the painting, move off to the side. In Sunset, Apollo and the sea nymph Thetis are seated in the waves. Just as Apollo represents the sun, Thetis represents the sea. So, as the setting sun sinks into the sea, so, too, does Apollo sink into the embrace of Thetis.
Midday and Sunset do not, in fact, depict particular mythological scenes. The figures in them—the god Apollo, the anthropomorphized Winds, and the nymph Thetis—are all well-known mythological figures, but the scenes themselves are not part of traditional iconography. In fact, compared to ancient sources, there are inaccuracies in the attribution of certain powers to the figures represented. In Greek tradition, Helios was the god of the sun, and he drove a chariot that carried the sun across the sky. The Romans, however, attributed this act to Apollo, and in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, he drives the chariot of the sun. Lagrenée’s depiction of the stages of the sun’s journey relies on Ovid’s literary interpretation. Another mythological inaccuracy comes with Lagrenée’s depiction of the nymph Thetis. Thetis was a sea nymph, but she was not a powerful or prominent figure—her main role in mythology is as the mother of Achilles. It is far more likely that Thetis’s popularity in the art of this period (there is a “Thetis Grotto” at the royal palace of Versailles) resulted from a confusion with the goddess Tethys. Tethys is goddess of the sea: sister/wife of Oceanus, and daughter of Gaia, the earth, and Uranus, the sky. The similarity in their names, Thetis and Tethys, and their pronunciation in French, is probably the source of this conflation.
Audio: Shira Gluck, Oberlin College