A young milkmaid with a brass pitcher on her head and a bucket in her hand leads her herd of cattle away for milking. The rising sun reflects in a pool and reaches through the trees to catch the sleek white hides of some of the cows. It’s an idyllic, rustic scene, yet there is energy: people are working and animals moving.
In seventeenth-century Flanders, landscape began to be accepted as a genre of its own instead of as a mere background for narrative paintings or portraits. For Rubens in particular it became a way of celebrating the Flemish countryside he loved. But in England, landscape painting was still neglected, even into the eighteenth century, until artists such as Richard Wilson and Thomas Gainsborough turned their attention to it. The latter saw The Watering Place in London in 1768 and painted a landscape inspired by it in homage to Rubens.
A young milkmaid with pink cheeks leads her herd of cattle away for milking, a brass pitcher on her head and a bucket in her hand. The rising sun reflects in a pool and reaches through the trees to catch the sleek white hides of some of the cows. It’s an idyllic, rustic scene, but there is energy: people are working and animals moving. Apart from the milkmaid, a youth sits astride one of his horses as they drink in the stream while a man with a pole struggles to release an obstinate animal from the muddy grass on its bank.
Rubens has filled the picture with minute detail, from the many different kinds of foliage to the tiny scarlet flowers on a branch hanging from the cliff. Almost hidden in the undergrowth, two black goats forage for food and two magpies perch in the branches of the central trees. The surrounding landscape is almost shielded from view by the towering cliffs. This follows the Flemish landscape tradition that stems from the paintings of Joachim Patinir, such as Saint Jerome in a Rocky Landscape, painted about a century before Rubens’s picture. But here Rubens has added a dense forest with trees massed together, their branches interwoven and their exposed roots gnarled, with light filtering through the poplar trees in the distance and focusing on the busy figures in the foreground.
A little to the left of the animals by the water, a flock of sheep grazes on a rocky outcrop at the foot of the cliffs. This section of the painting is a free copy of the central part of Rubens’s A Shepherd with his Flock in a Woody Landscape. The two pictures were painted at about the same time, both on oak panels, and this replication is unique in Rubens’s work. An X-ray image has revealed that the shepherd boy in a red jacket in the other painting once also appeared in ‘The Watering Place’, in exactly the same pose, but it is thought that Rubens painted him out, possibly because he distracted from the group of figures and animals below.
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