Images of peasants were enormously popular among collectors in the late nineteenth century and Bouguereau's paintings, particularly those so masterfully executed as the figure in Innocence, were irresistible to them. This was equally due to his virtuoso technique as well as the enthusiastic dedication that his dealer, Goupil, brought to his distribution. Demand would often outweigh supply and Bouguereau would produce works on the same theme or from the same source of inspiration. For instance, the model and plaid scarf depicted in Innocence also appears in Fileuse (1873, Private Collection), Tarantelle (1873, Private Collection) and L'agneau nouveau-né (sold in these rooms, May 22, 2018, lot 25, fig. 1), to which the present painting is closely related. All four works were painted in the first half of 1873, and Goupil's records show that they purchased Innocence directly from the artist's studio in April 1873, which was later followed by their purchase of L'agneau nouveau-né in July of the same year. It is reasonable to assume that Innocence was painted first, presenting the elegant kernel of an idea that he would later expand into the larger, full-length canvas.
The shepherdess is a recurring theme throughout Bouguereau's oeuvre and here she is a symbol of maternal love, caring for her flock. This young, contemplative woman holds the lamb in her arms as she might a newborn babe, and Bouguereau takes the opportunity to create an enduring and meditative image. At the same time, the composition's smooth brushwork erases the presence of the painter, and creates a balance between immobile, static form and rich surface details.
While it is not often recognized, Bouguereau is a superb painter of animals, and the lamb's expression here is as clearly rendered as its downy coat. Rosa Bonheur, who kept a farm’s worth of animal at her atelier in Paris, had lived just down the street from Bouguereau before escaping the city to her Château de By, and it is possible that the artist used her animals as models in his works.
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