This painting is a half-length portrait of a lady in the guise of a shepherdess. She is holding a houlette (or a baton de berger), the traditional attribute of a shepherd or shepherdess.
She is depicted standing before a landscape that features another shepherd and a flock of sheep, however, there is little in her demeanour that suggests that she is actually concerned with the fate of these animals. Also, her dress, while elegant, is impractical and hardly appropriate for the rigours of country life.
The romantic fantasy of shepherds and shepherdesses living in the wilds of Arcadia in Greece was a favoured theme in ancient poetry and was revived from the 16th century onwards in Renaissance Italy and the Netherlands. The fascination with pastoral ideals stayed current among nobles and the elite at the Dutch court in The Hague in the 17th century. In art and literature there was a tendency to dwell on the innocence of the rustic way of life and shepherdesses often were seen as emblematic figures of complete virtue.
Gerrit van Honthorst
Honthorst became one of the main Dutch followers of Caravaggio, whose style he popularised in Holland on his return from a stay in Rome, 1610-20. With paintings such as ‘Christ before the High Priest’ he became one of the few Dutch painters to achieve international fame.
Honthorst was born in Utrecht, probably the son of Herman Gerritsz. van Honthorst, a painter of tapestry cartoons. He trained with Bloemaert, the leading local painter, before travelling to Rome. After his return to Utrecht in 1620, he turned from mainly religious to Arcadian and domestic subjects and portraits. He popularised candle-light scenes.
In 1628 he was working in London for King Charles I. He returned in December 1628 and lived in The Hague, where he was in the service of Prince Frederick Henry of Orange (who died 1647). He was involved in the decoration of the Prince’s new palaces and was his favoured portrait painter. In 1635 Honthorst sent to Denmark the first of a long series of classical and historical pictures commissioned by King Christian IV. In 1652 he returned to Utrecht, where he died.