This endearing pastoral by Boucher is one the artist's most successful early compositions, a fact attested to by the several autograph versions of it that are known today. The composition was engraved by Louis Michel Halbou (fig. 1; see Pierrette Jean-Richard, L'Oeuvre gravé de François Boucher, Paris, 1978, no. 1072, illustrated), probably in the 1750s or 1760s. Halbou's engraving includes the prominent profile of a cow looking fixedly toward a seated shepherd and shepherdess, a feature absent in the version of the painting that was with the Preyer Gallerie in Vienna in 1897 (and reproduced in Alexandre Ananoff, François Boucher, Geneva, 1976, I, cat. 2, fig. 184), but present in a fine, recently rediscovered version in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore (see Eric Zafran, 'Paintings by Boucher in the Walters Art Gallery', The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery, vol. 45, 1987, pp. 103-109). Eric Zafran has suggested that Halbou's print probably, therefore, reproduced the Walters painting, despite the fact that the Walters canvas is less closely cropped than the engraving and expands the image by several inches on all sides. The rediscovery of the present, previously unpublished painting seems to provide the explanation: it corresponds precisely in format and detail to Halbou's print, including the presence of the cow's head on the far right of the canvas, where it can be seen dimly emerging from beneath the layers of nineteenth-century overpainting that had attempted to obscure it.
That the present lot is certainly the engraved picture and is of 'superior quality' does not necessarily mean that it is Boucher's first version of the composition, however, as Alastair Laing has noted (written communications, 12 December 2001 and 5 February 2002). The composition appears in several of the most important French picture collections of the late eighteenth century, and can be found passing through the sales of Godefroy (15-19 November 1785, lot 46); the Comte de Vaudreuil (26 November 1787, lot 76); and Montesquiou (9 December 1788, lot 234). It is impossible to say with certainty whether the accompanying sales catalogues describe the Walters painting or another, as yet to be identified version of the composition. (One can be certain only that they do not refer to the Preyer Gallerie version, as each catalogue notes the presence of the cow.) The fact that the present lot bears the seal of Peter Vigil Graf von Thun-Hohenstein, who served as Bishop of Trient from 1776 until 1800 would seem to preclude its presence in the aforementioned collections. Furthermore, the dimensions listed for the picture that appeared in the Godefroy, Vaudreuil and Montesquiou sales, and subsequently the Lebrun, Maurice and Arago sales (23 May 1814, lot 17; 2-3 February 1835, lot 97; and 8 February 1872, lot 5, respectively) were slightly larger than for the present lot (13 x 16 pouces, or approximately 35 x 43 cm.), close to the dimensions of the Walters painting (37 x 46 cm.).
As the expert of the Arago sale observed, Boucher's painting was made shortly after his return to France from a two-year sojourn to Italy (1728-c.1731) and strongly reflects the influence of the sixteenth-century pastorals by the Bassano family that Boucher would have seen there, especially evident in the young painter's prominent inclusion of characteristically fluffy 'Bassano' sheep. As Laing observed (ibid.), the period immediately following Boucher's return from Italy was a moment when the artist was eagerly repeating his successful compositions in order to establish himself and make a living, and well before he had the financial security to afford studio assistance. Despite its reliance on Italian models, however, the present work is also reminiscent of the art of Antoine Watteau, whose paintings and drawings Boucher had copied and extensively reproduced in etchings. Indeed, Boucher's poses for the shepherd and shepherdess are a modified quotation of the couple in Watteau's playfully erotic painting L'Indiscret (Museum Boymans-Van Beuningen, Rotterdam).
We are grateful to Alastair Laing, who examined the painting in person, and Peter Dewar for their assistance in preparing this entry.