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

Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite Vision The Light of the World has become, through its familiarity, an image of comfort to many. However its creator, William Holman Hunt, was not at ease with conventional Victorian society nor the established church. From rebellious student days on, he questioned everything as he struggled with himself, his faith and his painting technique. This struggle was to bear the richest of fruits. His paintings are both distinctive and innovative. His artistic vision never dimmed. As a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood he explored themes of morality and religion, at first in a covert way through literary subjects, and later through modern day themes. The means he adopted were found through studying the writings of the art historian John Ruskin who recommended young painters to study nature in minute detail and then to combine this with serious subject matter. Agnostic in his youth, his conversion to a deeply felt Christian faith changed his life and his art. From then on he saw himself as a messenger, compelled to visit the Holy Land to return with faithful reconstructions of Biblical scenes as provocative offerings to his fellow Christians. He was an intellectual whose wide reading informed his art. Behind the rich surface of his paintings are layers of meanings which allow them to be read like a book. His advice to viewers of his painting Claudio and Isabella could apply to all his art: “Give some minutes quiet attention to this picture, to read it awhile, and then say it doesn’t speak its meaning marvellously and touchingly.”