Barefoot and carrying a heavy sack of potatoes on her head, a young peasant woman returns from the fields in the early evening as Capella, the “shepherd’s star,” rises over her shoulder. Although the model was an actual agricultural worker from the artist’s native village in the Artois region of northern France, Jules Breton gives the figure a classical monumentality and timelessness that avoids any commentary on her social position. Rather, the painting presents an idealized and romanticized image of the French peasant as the heroic embodiment of a traditional, idyllic way of life—one that was rapidly disappearing in the nineteenth century under the pressures of the Industrial Revolution.
Unlike the more frank, unsentimental images of peasants by such French Realist artists as Jean-François Millet and Gustave Courbet, Breton sought to ennoble his scenes with the aura of history painting—the depiction of scenes of battle, great deeds, or mythological stories-that-was the most revered genre of the French arbiter of taste, the Académie des Beaux-Arts. As the critic Arsène Houssaye wrote of The Shepherd’s Star in 1888, “imagine that she carried on her back a sheaf of wheat instead of a sack of potatoes, and then she could be the personification of harvesting. She would be a modern Ceres.”