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Essay – Paulus Moreelse – Shepherdess

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Essay - Paulus Moreelse - Shepherdess

This charming Shepherdess by Paulus Moreelse, dated 1617, is the earliest depiction of a pastoral half-length figure in Dutch painting.1 The subject began to enjoy great popularity in the 1620s, initially above all in Utrecht but later in other cities as well.2 Around 20 waist-length shepherdesses and five shepherds by Moreelse – a celebrated portraitist and history painter – have been preserved.3 The graceful and idealised features of this earliest example still owe much to the late-Mannerist style fashionable in the years around 1600.

The young woman, facing left with her head slightly cocked, looks seductively out at the viewer from under her straw hat. Set against a dark background, she occupies the entire picture surface and is easily recognisable as a shepherdess thanks to the staff in her right hand. Her hat, which casts a shadow over her face, is decorated with a garland of leaves and a red rose, attributes of the goddess of love, Venus. Her blond hair falls in plaits about her shoulders. She wears a striped oriental scarf over her low-cut white blouse.4 A red undergarment and bodice are visible beneath her bosom.

Although there appears to be no direct pictorial source, Moreelse’s shepherdesses are reminiscent of sixteenth-century Venetian courtesan portraits and Italian, German and Dutch paintings of the preceding century of half-length female figures, such as Lucretia, Venus, Diana or Ceres.5 Prototypes for his pastoral characters can also be found in earlier works depicting the Adoration of the shepherds or the Annunciation to the shepherds.

The pastoral genre arrived in the northern Netherlands around 1600: Hendrick Goltzius’s woodcuts accompanying Van Mander’s 1597 translation of Virgil’s popular Eclogae are among the earliest Dutch Arcadian images.6 The pastoral idiom experienced an extraordinary literary flowering in the early seventeenth century. Shepherds and shepherdesses figure in such plays as Granida by Pieter Cornelisz Hooft (1605), inspired in part by Battista Guarini’s popular pastoral Il pastor fido (1589).7 The seductive aura of Moreelse’s figure recalls the ‘vrysters’ (sweethearts) of shepherd songs, which enjoyed a great vogue in the early seventeenth century.8

Although most of Moreelse’s provocative shepherdesses were conceived as independent paintings, some of them had a male pendant. The States of Utrecht, for example, presented a Shepherd and Shepherdess by Moreelse to Amalia van Solms in the spring of 1627, probably on the occasion of her husband’s installation as stadholder of Utrecht in November 1626. Only the amorous Shepherd offering his lover a rose, however, has survived (fig. 1).9 This official gift gives an indication of the enormous popularity of the pastoral theme in this period.