Manchester Art Gallery

The Hireling Shepherd

Object description

A vividly coloured, minutely detailed painting of a shepherd and shepherdess, seated on the ground in a lush green summer meadow, surrounded by their sheep, a willow-lined grassy stream behind them. The shepherd is a 'hireling', a biblical reference [John 10,12]. In the centre, the young shepherdess leans back on her right arm, flirting with the young shepherd who is leaning forward on his knees with one arm around her shoulder showing her a death's head moth in his hand. The shepherdess is wearing a white long sleeved smock, with white circular embroidery, over a bright red dress, a yellow head scarf over her auburn hair. The shepherd wears a bright blue over-garment, secured at his waist with a belt, from which hangs a small barrel. His lower legs are bound with rope. Behind him on the left, his flock of sheep stray untended towards the trees and cornfield on the right, some of the sheep already amongst the corn. In the left foreground, two bloated sheep lie on the ground poisoned by the corn. The shepherdess has a small lamb on her lap, partly covered with a red shawl, eating sour apples, two of which have fallen to the ground beside her. Her bare feet are close to a small stream in the right corner. Yellow and purple flowers grow in the foreground, with poppies on the border of the cornfield. A line of tall trees is visible in the background to the left, with a field containing rows of hay behind. The frame is decorated with raised mouldings of wheat ears, with sheaves of wheat in the corners and centre of the sides, and beading along the inner edge.

Display label

The Hireling Shepherd 1851 William Holman Hunt 1827-1910 Oil on canvas In a letter to the Gallery, Hunt said that his first object had been to paint a real shepherd and shepherdess 'and a landscape in full sunlight, with all the colours of luscious summer', but he also used it to highlight problems in the Church. The Bible tells how the 'hireling' shepherd does not care for his flock the way a true shepherd does. Here the hired help flirts with a young lady about a silly superstition of a death's head moth, while the sheep stray into the corn and become 'blown'. The shepherd is likened to the clergy at the time, who neglect their pastoral duties in favour of more high-flown ideals. Hunt used an innovative painting technique, achieving astonishing clarity and brilliance by painting over a wet, white ground. His bright colours and unflinching realism were as shocking to the public as was the perceived 'coarse' nature of the couple.