Hireling Shepherd

William Holman Hunt's The Hireling Shepherd epitomizes the painter's emulation of Hogarthian techniques and his quest for typological symbolism. The painting centers on a realistically rendered shepherd and shepherdess, reclining in a field beside a row of trees. Dressed in a typical field worker's attire, the shepherd leans seductively toward the young woman, his head practically resting on her shoulder. In her loose-fitting casual dress, the shepherdess reciprocates his feelings through her suggestive body language. She leans back toward him and reaches her right arm back to seemingly grasp his; however, her facial expression is less inviting, bearing a hint of excessive pride. To the right of the couple, a lamb sits, eating apples. More apples, flowers, and grass dominate the foreground of the image, while sheep graze in a shady area to the shepherd's left.

although at first glance, The Hireling Shepherd appears to be a straightforward country scene, it is full of symbolic meaning. Hunt believed that to have any sort of value or vitality, art needed to possess religious significance and emotional resonance with the viewer. He rendered the The Hireling Shepherd in a highly realistic manner, however, Hunt often stressed that realism was not his primary goal in painting. Similar to Hogarth's work, Industry and Idleness, Hunt used The Hireling Shepherd to emphasize the importance of a good work ethic for all citizens and to show the potentially harmful effects of idleness. As a result of the shepherd's neglect, the land has turned marshy and the sheep are in poor health.

Questions

1. Hunt converted to Christianity at around the same time he painted The Hireling Shepherd. What religious messages might Hunt have been sending to negligent priests or to all Christians in general with this painting?

2. The apples, presence of a man and woman, and moral message of the painting all suggest a reference to the Temptation and Fall of man. Do any aspects of the painting contradict this parallel?

3. Is the painting rendered in the characteristic manner and style of other PRB painters?

4. How does the relationship between the shepherd and shepherdess differ from that of the man and woman portrayed in Hunt's Awakening Conscience?
Main Overview Victorian Web Victorian painting Visual Arts  W H Hunt Discussion Questions

Last modified 19 September 2004