When Message and Style Compete for the Viewer's Attention: Hunt's The Hireling Shepherd

Maya Taylor, English/History of Art 151, Pre-Raphaelites, Aesthetes, and Decadents, Brown University, 2006

Hireling Shepherd Although William Holman Hunt's The Hireling Shepherd seems to be a pastoral scene, it breaks with many of the pictorial traditions of that genre. Traditional landscapes in pastoral scenes borrowed landforms and tree varieties from an idealized version of the Italian countryside. The flora that Hunt so carefully articulates appears to be native to England is shown in as much unembellished detail as possible. Hunt's figures wear, not in elaborate shepherd and shepherdess costumes as similar figures in a traditional Arcadian scene would, but realistic outfits for English peasants. The size and central positioning of the figures notable departs from tradition, since the man and women are not historical or otherwise elevated personages.

It seems Hunt's rebellion against the compositional conventions of the pastoral scene was not central to his intent in this painting. More immediately striking is the use of symbolism to impart a Hogarthian moralizing message. The fact that Hunt's shepherd is not doing what he should is immediately apparent, especially when the viewer has read the accompanying lines (taken from King Lear):

Sleepeth or waketh thou, jolly shepherd?
Thy sheep be in the corn;
And for one blast of thy minikin mouth,
Thy sheep shall take no harm. [Act III, scene 6]

The placement of the unsupervised sheep (near hay that they should not eat) and even elements of the landscape itself (marshiness, for example) are symbolic of the negative effects of the shepherd's inattention to his duties. This can be interpreted simply as a warning against laziness or, more likely, as a critique of "the clergyman who does not fulfill his duties" (Landow) and thus endangers the spiritual health of his parishioners.

Questions

1. In the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, transgressive painterly technique and strong symbolic messages often fight for the viewer's attention. Was the use of new techniques or the presentation of moral and religious messages more important to Hunt? To the PRB in general?

2. In The Hireling Shepherd, how elaborately should the symbolic elements be analyzed? (Is this about morals? Is it more specific? Did Hunt purposefully include symbols (like the lamb and the apples) that have more than one symbolic association?)

3. Is it significant that Hunt chose to emphasize an English setting for his scene?

4. Many Pre-Raphaelite works have obviously local settings. Does nationalism come into play in the work of Hunt and the PRB? How?


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Last modified 19 September 2004