“Shepherdess with Her Flock” demonstrates a compositional blueprint almost identical to that of the Angelus: a similar division of the canvas, where vast plain and skies occupy most of the foreground and background, protagonists at the front, a centralized vanishing point.
The theme of a solitary working peasant reoccurs also in the Knitter (see image below), as well as in the Sower. Millet’s schematic approach to facial features brings to mind the caricaturist style of Pieter Bruegel the Elder; both represent prototypes and both reserve a sympathetic eye for their subjects but, Bruegel clearly drifts towards celebration, whereas Millet towards melancholic poetry.
The girl appears to be clutching a rosary and praying — taking a break from shepherding to serve a different master. The sheep behind her may imply being a part of a religious flock, as obedient and subservient as the grazing animals. The flock counterbalances the girl, the entire group producing the shape of a cross turned ninety degrees clockwise — reinforcing a religious metaphoric reading. Millet offers a smooth, obvious transition from the literal to the figurative.
Downcast gaze, a trademark motif in Millet’s models, suggests a depressed state of mind, a weak, downtrodden existence. Downcast eyes can be a powerful and expressive psychological instrument: Johannes Vermeer, the Dutch baroque painter, deployed it quite often, depicting his actors, servants as well as masters, lowering their gaze and directing their attention to the task at hand. The Milkmaid and the Lacemaker are fine examples, as are the several scenes where refined ladies either read or write letters.
Even if we assume that Millet’s subjects could read and write, their placement against a bleak landscape backdrop (as opposed to Vermeer’s interiors) removes the possibility of leisure that these activities require. Millet’s peasants lack the calm and confidence of Vermeer’s models; they appear unable to transcend themselves through self-education. Instead, their transcendence becomes a cause to be taken up by the artist himself.
The worried faces of these young women convey suffering and sadness, some sort of malaise or dissatisfaction, however suppressed or contained. They seem to find neither joy, nor peace in their work, which consumes them completely. It’s a state of thorough hopelessness. In turn, the endlessness of the sky and the land emphasize the girl’s vulnerability, pushing her towards the viewers, almost forcing an intimate encounter. The overall image is programmed to evoke pity and sympathy.
The boundaries of the canvas, cutting abruptly both the plain and the sky, appear to be the only restraints of nature’s sheer expanses. Hence, the artist becomes the girl’s protector, generously fitting the frame — as if after searching for a perfect angle with a camera — to capture her safely and neatly with the flock, and tone down the effect of being rendered frighteningly insignificant by the elements. Here Millet’s sentimentality becomes the very method by which he transcends his shepherdess, at least in art, to greener pastures.
*this article has been edited at a later date