Fauré composed the first song, "Mandoline", in May 1891 in Venice. He was staying in the Palazzo Volkoff (or Wolkoff) on the Grand Canal, as a guest of Winnaretta Singer, the future Princess de Polignac. Among Singer's other guests were the painter Ernest Ange Duez and his wife Amélie. She was a singer, and entertained the group with Fauré's new composition.
Only "Mandoline" and part of "En sourdine" were composed in Venice. The idea of creating a cycle seems to have come to Fauré only after his return to Paris on 20 June. The rest of the songs were completed in Paris by September 1891. The cycle was published by Hamelle that year, dedicated to Singer. It was published in England in 1896 by Metzler, with an English translation by Adela Maddison.
Fauré wrote to Singer in September 1891 that he believed that with this song cycle he had created a new form, whereby the return of the themes of the other songs in the final one, "C'est l'extase", made the songs into a kind of suite.