Corydon: 2 Shepherds from staffage to social symbol

Constant Troyon (1810–1865), On the Way to Market (1859), oil on canvas, 260.5 x 211 cm, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg. Wikimedia Commons.

The first part of this account of shepherds and shepherdesses in paintings looked at their role in stories, from the earliest classical myths to epic English poetry. This second and concluding article looks at paintings of shepherds in landscapes, and in their own right as the motif.

Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with a Calm (c 1651), oil on canvas, 97 x 131 cm, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program.
Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with a Calm (c 1651), oil on canvas, 97 x 131 cm, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

Nicolas Poussin’s elaborately-composed ideal landscapes often feature shepherds and their flocks. His sublime Landscape with a Calm from about 1651 – arguably one of the greatest landscape paintings in the European canon – does so twice, once in its foreground, although technically the figure is a goatherd, and again on the other side of the lake, where disproportionately large sheep mix with a herd of cattle at the water’s edge.

After Poussin’s lead, many landscape painters included shepherds and their flocks in their staffage.

Heinrich Bürkel (1802–1869), Shepherds in the Roman Campagna (1837), oil on canvas, 48.3 x 67.7 cm, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Painting shepherds as an important part of the motif, or even as the theme of a painting, was more unusual until the nineteenth century. When Heinrich Bürkel and other artists left the towns and cities of northern Europe to go and paint in the countryside around Rome, some started to pay more attention to the shepherds as people.

Bürkel’s Shepherds in the Roman Campagna from 1837 has an almost documentary quality, in the rough and dusty peasants slumped on their horses and donkeys. In the foreground a couple of ewes are looking up at their lambs being carried in a pannier, and a dog is challenging a snake on the roadside.

Jean-François Millet (1814–1875), Seated Shepherdess (c 1852), oil on canvas, 46.4 × 38.1 cm, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, MN. Wikimedia Commons.

Their cause was taken up by Jean-François Millet, in pioneering social realist paintings such as his Seated Shepherdess from about 1852. His figures lack fine detail and are formed in a more painterly manner, as precursors to the ‘impression’ which was to come to the fore during the 1860s and 1870s. The flock of sheep are formed quite gesturally into a few vague masses, the head of one resting on the low bank on which the shepherdess is seated, just to the left of her right knee. The trees behind merge quickly into a dense texture, losing their individual forms.

Jean-François Millet (1814–1875), The Sheepfold, Moonlight (1856-60), oil on panel, dimensions not known, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD. Wikimedia Commons.

Millet even painted shepherds and their flocks at night, here in The Sheepfold, Moonlight from 1856-60. This beautiful work shows a shepherd working his dogs to bring his flock into a pen on the plain near Barbizon. He is doing this under a waning gibbous moon, which lights the backs of the sheep.

Jean-François Millet (1814–1875), Shepherd Tending His Flock (c 1862), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, The Brooklyn Museum, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

His Shepherd Tending His Flock from about 1862 was most probably painted during showery weather, under a marvellously luminous sky. This older shepherd is fortunate enough to be wearing an old sou’wester-style hat and weatherproof cloak. His sheep look quite thin and scrawny, and are feeding on the stubble left after harvest, implying the painting was set in the early autumn.

For some artists, shepherds were still part of a romantic fantasy, though.

Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899), The Highland Shepherd (1859), oil on canvas, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

The great animal painter Rosa Bonheur visited Scotland in 1855, during the final phases of the Highland Clearances, which drove much of the inhabitants away, usually to graft and poverty in the lowland cities, or to emigrate. She avoided getting embroiled in such controversies, and met Queen Victoria, who was already an admirer of her work. Bonheur later developed her sketches and studies into finished paintings, including The Highland Shepherd (1859).

Constant Troyon (1810–1865), On the Way to Market (1859), oil on canvas, 260.5 x 211 cm, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg. Wikimedia Commons.

Constant Troyon’s On the Way to Market from the same year does at least have greater veracity as well as its outstanding backlighting. Once again, young lambs are looking out from the panniers on a donkey.

Henri Regnault (1843–1871), Castilian Mountain Shepherd (1868), oil on canvas, 100 x 80 cm, Musée des beaux-arts de Pau, Pau, Aquitaine, France. Wikimedia Commons.

This thirst for the harsh truth of life as a shepherd even affected the short-lived but brilliant narrative painter Henri Regnault. When he won the Prix de Rome, he successfully sought dispensation from study in Italy, instead travelling to Spain and North Africa, where he painted this social realist portrait of a Castilian Mountain Shepherd in 1868.

Jules Breton (1827–1906), The Shepherdess (1870), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Museo Soumaya, Mexico City, Mexico. Wikimedia Commons.

Although Jules Breton’s paintings of shepherds aren’t perhaps as grittily realist, this portrait of The Shepherdess from 1870 delves deeper into the personality of his model, and her working life, in anticipation of Naturalism. Her blouse may be clean and white, but the rough coat or cloak which she carries must have been handed down through several previous owners.

Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848–1884), Roadside Flowers (The Little Shepherdess) (1882), oil on canvas, 132.1 x 88.9 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

It was Jules Bastien-Lepage who struck the most delicate balance between Millet’s social realism and sickly romanticism, in this enchanting painting of Roadside Flowers or The Little Shepherdess in 1882. Like the weeds behind her, this little girl has a wide-eyed and slightly sad beauty. Although her clothing is visibly tatty, her face and hair are idealistically clean, in keeping with a sentimentalism rather than the objectivity characteristic of true Naturalism.

Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), A Flock of Sheep (1888), oil on canvas, 46 x 55.2 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

By the time that Pissarro came to paint his flocks of sheep – some of the few Impressionist paintings which reflected on the social problems of rural France – the shepherds were walking away into the distance.

Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Landscape with a Flock of Sheep (1889-1902), oil on canvas, 48.3 × 60.3 cm, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

Now most have gone, replaced by twenty-first century cowboys riding quadbikes on the hillsides.