William Holman Hunt's The Hireling Shepherd depicts a highly moralizing scene which, although not specifically spiritual, connotes certain religious principles. As in many of Hunt's works, the image carries a deeper meaning than the viewer would initially suspect. Superficially, the painting shows a young couple of the lower class coyly flirting in front of a beautiful rustic backdrop. Their amorous exploits, however, distract the shepherd from his flock: the sheep in the background eats the corn while the lamb on the girl's lap eats a green apple, both of which should not be ingested. Hunt beautifully and realistically paints the figures and landscape, and uses the vivid colors so recognizable among Pre-Raphaelite works. Hunt's actual intention in this work suggests the shepherd is symbolic of the church and neglects the flock which needs his attention and guidance. Furthermore, the shepherd's rather physical interaction with the girl would not be regarded as morally upright by religious standards. The work certainly displays its Pre-Raphaelite roots in its vivid colors and remarkable detail, as in the plants in the immediate foreground and the texture of the couples' clothing. Hunt created The Hireling Shepherd as a moral critique although the work simultaneously appears to be a beautiful scene of country life, and he effectively combines reality with symbolism.
1. Would Hunt's contemporary viewers immediately recognize the religious implications of The Hireling Shepherd or would some appreciate it solely for its surface beauty? To what extent would the public understand Hunt's symbolism?
2. The Hireling Shepherd remains one of Hunt's most famous works. What makes this work stand out among the rest of his paintings? Do the reasons for its popularity coincide with Hunt's intentions?
Last modified 19 September 2004