From 1835, Penguilly L'Haridon's paintings had been well accepted in official circles and he had won several prizes for his numerous historical, mythological and religious paintings. The artist tackled many other subjects and did not hesitate to move away from traditional academic principles. When, in the 1859 Salon, he presented a landscape entitled The Little Seagulls (Rennes, Musée des Beaux-Arts), the subject, composition and colours made a definitive break with the accepted canon.
A little later, The Shepherds, led by the star, arriving at Bethlehem, also changed the traditional iconography. In this, Penguilly was part of a movement started by the English pre-Raphaelite painters. Like them, he placed a biblical subject in contemporary times. So, the shepherds are contemporary Bedouins with their scrawny dogs, and the holy place to which they are going is nothing more than a village in the middle of the desert, distinguished only by the star above it.
This iconography, taken from images of contemporary life, propagated by photography and by increasingly numerous illustrated publications, is set in a delicate composition.
The grey and white houses lie at the foot of the mountains tinted pink and orange by the setting sun. The overall tone of this updated Orient anticipates that of the Douanier-Rousseau (1844-1910) and his Sleeping Gypsy (1897, New York, The Museum of Modern Art).