A shepherdess with a sprig of roses leans on a crook, seductively gazing at the beholder from under her straw hat, which is adorned with other roses and a Venus shell – well-known symbols of Venus. A loose lock of her blond hair draws attention to one of her breasts, which is uncovered by her linen shirt.
Pastoral themes suddenly became extremely popular in The Netherlands around 1600 in literature and in the visual arts, first in Haarlem and then in Amsterdam, but Utrecht soon emerged as the ultimate centre for pastoral art. Virtually every Utrecht figure painter of repute contributed to the development of this new subject matter, Paulus Moreelse in particular. The bust-length shepherdess with décolletage of our painting was an invention of Moreelse and he would paint at least twenty of these Arcadian beauties, his earliest being of 1617 (presently Kremer Collection). The present work, which shows a curvy type of woman that nearly occupies the entire picture plane, is a typical early specimen and can be dated to the early 1620s. The well-known shepherdess of 1630 in the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum features a more slender type of woman and is shown as a half-figure with more space around her.
The few shepherds that have survived as well will have been intended as pendants to shepherdesses. The States of Utrecht presented such a pair to Amalia van Solms in the spring of 1627. However, Moreelse evidently painted most of these shepherdesses as independent works. However, the subject being enormously popular, the woman’s closeness to the viewer and her mysterious, faint smile conjures the idea of an amorous encounter. Her blushing cheeks reinforce the erotically charged energy that emanates from the image. Moreelse’s shepherdesses can be considered as the northern equivalents to the sixteenth-century Venetian courtesan portraits by Titian and Paris Bordone.