In this sparkling pastoral landscape, Hubert Robert employs a characteristic bright, pleasing palette; fluent, sketchy paint handling; and ingenious sense of design that are the hallmarks of his work, to create an inviting river scene set somewhere in the countryside around the Ile-de-France. Seated on a rocky riverbank, a barefoot shepherd in a red coat, blue vest and beribboned hat serenades the pretty shepherdess standing beside him. The young woman’s coy gaze suggests her ready receptivity to the boy’s charms, as do the spindle and distaff which she holds, household tools that bore decidedly provocative associations for 18th-century viewers. Used for spinning wool, the spindle and distaff appear in other genre paintings of the era – notably in several by Watteau – where both the shape and use of the tools have phallic connotations, and the act of transforming wool into yarn an analogy of sexual reproduction. In Robert’s painting, however, this salacious symbolism is tempered by the presence of an attentive hound, whose collar indicates domestication and attests to the young lovers’ romantic fidelity.
Robert develops his composition deftly within the confines of a round format, providing a great arching tree that follows the shape of the painting and encloses the figures beneath a gracefully enveloping bower. The effortless mastery with which Robert handles the unconventional format belies how unusual it is in the artist’s oeuvre. Indeed, it seems likely that the present painting was originally en suite with two other paintings by Hubert Robert, formerly in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, that were sold in these rooms in 2012 (Christie’s New York, 6 June 2012, lot 81). Those paintings, entitled The Ruins (fig. 1) and The Old Bridge (fig. 2), share the identical round format with the Desmarais painting and are the exact same size (between 82 and 83 cm. in diameter); they have complementary pastoral settings and subject matter and, indeed, carry identical frames. Nothing is known of the commission of any of these paintings or their intended destination, or how many paintings might have originally been included in the complete decorative scheme. Nor is there any indication of when the larger series might have been split up, but the two paintings formerly in the Met have been paired since at least 1926.
Like The Ruins and The Old Bridge, the figures in the present painting were almost certainly based on prototypes by François Boucher. Unlike The Ruins, in which the central figural group was lifted, more or less wholesale, from Boucher’s painting The Journey to Market, the sources for our shepherd and shepherdess in Boucher’s oeuvre have yet to be identified, but the types clearly derive from his work. Since Robert’s first Salon appearance in 1767, the celebrated critic Denis Diderot had been critical of the artist’s figure drawing, and Robert, apparently stung by the attacks, had tried to improve this particular skill by studying Boucher’s figures, variations of which appear with some frequency in Robert’s paintings after that date. Boucher and Robert collaborated in 1770 on a set of four decorative landscapes for the collector Bergeret de Frouville (the pictures are lost), and the older artist is known to have helped Robert improve his skills by giving him some of his own figure drawings to copy.
Although the Desmarais painting is not dated, the sophistication of its design and execution indicate that it is a mature work made well after Robert’s return to Paris from Rome in 1765. The lightness of palette, sparkling evocation of sunlight, and thin and fluent rendering of the river landscape are highly comparable to the aforementioned Old Bridge. As the companion of that picture, The Ruins, is signed and dated 1777, it seems reasonable to assign the same approximate date to the Desmarais pastorale.