“The Shepherd David” is based on the biblical story (I Samuel 17:34) in which David proves his worthiness to fight Goliath by recounting that he fought wild beasts threatening his flock. Elizabeth Jane Gardner Bouguereau depicts a young David kneeling victoriously on a dead lion while clutching a lamb in the crook of his right arm. As he gazes to the heavens, he gesticulates upward with his left hand toward the source of his strength.
The monumental composition and David’s pose reflect Bouguereau’s familiarity with old-master paintings and classical sculpture. David’s marble-like skin stands out against a background of muted blues and earth tones, further contributing to the otherworldliness of this representation. The polished surface of the work, which Bouguereau achieved with smooth, unbroken brush strokes, conveys the idea that this is a historic moment frozen in time.
Writing to her sister Maria in 1895 about this work, Bouguereau boasted that the painting would soon grace a full page in the art dealer Albert Goupil’s publication listing the best pictures of the year. Gardner recognized that this work was not a “good paying investment,” as it might be too “serious for ordinary tastes,” perhaps better suited for a museum.