The titular girl seems of Mediterranean origin, and she is used in a number of other portraits by the artist at the time. Experienced and busy throughout the 19th century, Bouguereau is again giving the world a captivating insight into the late rural setting across many south European countries of the period.

Caspar David Friedrich Paintings
Caspar David Friedrich Paintings

The exact setting given in this version of The Shepherdess is one of rolling hills and a verdant environment. The light is bright, boldly washing into much of the deeper colours to lift the paler colours in the sky. A light which washes its way across the model’s face too, it gives a definition and deepness which may not be immediately noticeable.

Completed in 1889 the painting shows a young peasant girl posed in the attire of the time. It is striking for giving no clear or direct indication of her role. Were it not for the title it would be hard for many, without prior knowledge or understanding perhaps, to define her as being someone used to tending sheep and livestock each day.

The picture does little else to help guide as to her role in life. Most striking of all perhaps are the herd of cattle grazing in the mid-ground - making their way from behind the folds of her drab olive skirt. Is this her herd, her oxen, her livestock? It is never clear.

Not evidently clear either is whether the subject is on her way to, from or journeying between her work as she straddles a hillside pathway barefoot. Rutted and worn and well-trodded, the path is in stark counter to the beauty and perfection the face of The Shepherdess presents.

The painting does clearly lead along another path suggesting she is very familiar with a hard day tending livestock however. It is painted with a confidence showing on her face, alongside the alluring features. The brushstrokes suggest a quiet and graceful strength from the gentle ripple of muscle on her forearms.

The way she balances her working stick across her shoulders again shows confidence, with an inherent comfortable feel. The artist wants to show his model is content with what she is doing. The artist wants to show, again, he is content, confident and comfortable with what he is painting.