Fragonard’s The Shepherdess
Fragonard‘s The Shepherdess is not really a shepherdess.
Observe those pink, flawless feet, fetchingly exposed as objects of 18th-century eroticism, and the soft hands. Though placid sheep lounge about her, this young woman does not deal in livestock. She and the lover, who approaches from the distance, are playing at a pastorale. They are sensual aristocrats pretending to be peasants for a sexual frisson. French aristocrats of the day were a little funny that way.
Note the blatantly phallic branch at the lower left. In the background, Fragonard strategically arranged a spray of grayish-golden grasses aligned with the end of the straining branch. The symbolism here is witty and elegant, but not exactly subtle.
The branch protrudes through a pink ribbon twined about it and tied to a basket of roses picked at the peak of bloom. The rod and the rose, the male and the female, are bound together with soft, sensual fabric. The alleged shepherdess fondles another branch above her head and gently pulls it down to meet the plane of the more masculine branch below.
The arcing branches and the shadows around the bottom and right of the painting form a vortex around the self-consciously luscious young woman. She frames herself with her arms, to form a second vortex. At the center, her left cheek blushes intensely, and not out of embarrassment. She blushes with excitement; she’s ready. Note the angle of her crook, bound in masculine blue ribbon. Her young man, in the distance, is coming with his staff to likewise penetrate the suggestive ovals around the young woman.
Hot stuff, eh?
I’m not just making this up. Laurie Winters, the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Curator of Earlier European Art, sees it, too.
With that cue, it becomes easy to read the piece. In 18th-century terms, it was conducive to sexy pillow talk: “What would you do to me if I were that shepherdess?”
The painting has more than erotic and anecdotal value. The virtuoso brushwork seems effortless. The abundant details are convincing but not fussy. The whirling structure of the painting, vibrant in an abstract way, interacts brilliantly with the narrative. The luminescent color, glowing with the ripest of spring days, is a sensual delight to the eyes. The girl blushes, and the landscape blushes, too.
Each Thursday until Labor Day, we’ll take a long look at one work in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s permanent collection. We’re turning fresh eyes toward old friends. Do drop in to the museum this summer and take a long look for yourself.
TCD Discount: Print this story or any story in our summer One Piece at a Time series and take it with you for a $2 discount on admission to the Milwaukee Art Museum.