Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Pastoral Charms in the French Renaissance

A class of objects made at the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth reflected a yearning for a simpler existence. Genre subjects drawn from everyday life have a long tradition in the arts. Toward the end of the sixteenth century, such themes could be seen throughout Europe, from Florence, where statues of peasants were placed beside those of mythological gods in the Boboli Gardens, to Antwerp, where Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted and drew scenes of peasant life that were collected by the highest members of society.

In France, peasants were often the subjects of ceramic and bronze statuettes. This trend found parallels in literature, as poetic narratives of idyllic shepherd life came into vogue. Translations of ancient pastoral tales, such as Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe, echoed in plays and poems by French authors that contrasted the innocence of rural life to the corruption of the city. These highly stylized dramas were widely read and performed; their popularity promoted their use as a theme in the decorative arts.

The potters of Avon who created such courtly extravaganzas as the bathing woman in a “gondola” cup (53.225.54) also issued a large number of works of rural types: hurdy-gurdy players, milkmaids, and shepherds. Such objects were not made for the people represented—who could hardly have afforded them—but for the noble classes. The journal of Jean Héroard, the dauphin’s doctor, records a pottery figure of a nurse given to the daughter of Madame de Montpensier by the dauphin Louis de Bourbon (son of Henry IV and future King Louis XIII) on April 24, 1608. The Museum has two versions of a wet nurse holding a swaddled child, which is the composition probably referred to by Héroard (1974.356.303). The dauphin himself owned a large collection of these figures purchased from the nearby pottery.

Many of the models for these clay statuettes are attributed to Guillaume Dupré, named first sculptor to Henry IV in 1597. Contemporary sculptor Barthélemy Prieur is also believed to have modeled a number of genre subjects drawn from rural life, but his works were produced in the more costly medium of bronze. These bronzes follow the example of a group of similar subjects by the Flemish artist Giambologna, modeled and cast in Italy during the late sixteenth century. Unlike the taut gestures and angular poses for which that sculptor was known, Prieur’s figures are relaxed and limber. Some of the bronzes attributed to Prieur reference the antique; for instance, the statuette of a woman pulling a thorn out of her foot (25.142.5) recalls the second-century Roman statue of the Spinario (Thorn Puller), a boy in the same pose, a copy of which had been made for Francis I in 1544. Prieur’s seated woman calmly braiding her hair, however, has no ancient prototype (1982.60.126). Although nude, the figure does not seem intended to be erotic; to the contrary, it is an image of innocence.

The noble shepherd, emblem of the simple life, captured the imagination of many readers toward the end of the sixteenth century. Rémy Belleau’s pastoral poem La Bergerie of 1565, set in Joinville, family seat of the Guises, intermixes descriptions of their wealthy accoutrements with the narrative of a rural drama. The Guises owned many tapestries, some of shepherd subjects, and Belleau intentionally blurred the line between his descriptions of real people and of fictional images on the château walls.

Pastoral images were also found in French embroidered tablecloths. One example in the Museum’s collection (54.7.1) represents the traditional tale of the shepherds Gombaut and Macée around the border of a panel of flowers and fruit. The girl, Gombaut, washes her feet in a stream; with Macée, she raids a bird’s nest; the croquetlike game ticquet is played; a bagpiper accompanies dancers. These idyllic scenes are followed by the couple’s betrothal and marriage, bowdlerizing the sad tale of wolves and death that concludes the story. Extolling the ideal pleasures of arcadian life is the point of the pastoral, which is above all an escape from reality. In a country exhausted by internal strife and seeking a brighter future, this was an understandable response.