The fountains in the Garden Courts on the Main Floor of the West Building were originally made for the vast garden laid out for King Louis XIV of France (1638–1715) at his château of Versailles. The one in the East Garden Court, by Pierre Legros I, consists of two cherubs sitting in a shell and together holding a lyre, an attribute of the sun god Apollo, whom Louis XIV took as a symbol. In the West Garden Court sculpture by Jean-Baptist Tuby I, the cherubs wrestle playfully with a swan, another emblem of Apollo. The quiver of arrows in each fountain is an attribute of Cupid, the infant god of love.
These sculptures were created between 1672 and 1674 for a secluded grove on the grounds of Versailles called the Théâtre d'Eau, shaped as a theater with jets and streams of water as the performers. Four fountains, including the two now in Washington, stood in niches carved into a curving wall of greenery that formed a theater backdrop against a low hill. (The other two, Cherubs with a Griffin by Benoît Massou and Cherubs with a Crayfish by Jacques Houzeau, are lost; the only other sculpture known to survive from the Théâtre d'Eau is the bronze Cupid Drawing an Arrow by Gaspard Marsy, now in the gardens of the Grand Trianon at Versailles). Between these fountains, water cascaded down channels from the top of the hill to spill into pools on the "stage." Lead was the preferred medium for fountain figures because it resists corrosion, takes gilding easily, and can be cast relatively quickly. This was an advantage for a patron like Louis XIV, who wanted many fine sculptures produced in a short time.
The king and his powerful artistic director, the painter and art theorist Charles Le Brun (1619–1690), intended all the sculptures at Versailles to resemble one another in style. For this reason it may be difficult to distinguish the work of one sculptor from another, except in rare cases where the sculptor managed to maintain an individual style. The names of the Versailles artists are known through old descriptions, prints, guidebooks, and archival documents. In the case of the National Gallery's two fountains, preliminary design drawings by Le Brun have survived. While the sculptures generally follow these, differences suggest the artists were allowed to exert some independence.
After the death of Louis XIV the Théâtre d'Eau, expensive to maintain, fell into disrepair. The sculptures must have been removed by 1756, when the Théâtre was described as "completely destroyed," with nothing left but the surrounding pathways. The sculptures by Tuby and Legros passed through various private collections—in the twentieth century, reportedly including that of the Grand Duchess Anastasia (cousin of the more famous Anastasia, daughter of Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia), before their acquisition by the A. W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust in 1940. Placed in the Garden Courts, the fountains enliven the settings where Gallery visitors can rest and relax, providing the same enjoyment as they did for Louis XIV and his courtiers.
The sculptor Pierre Legros I, father of another important sculptor also called Pierre, came from the French town of Chartres, renowned for its cathedral. Jean-Baptiste Tuby I, born in Rome but with a French father, was a leading sculptor on the team of artists at Versailles. He became close to the artistic director Le Brun, acquiring some of his paintings and marrying his niece. Tuby's son also became a sculptor.