The Hireling Shepherd: What Being Lost in Love Looks Like

The Hireling Shepherd by William Holman Hunt

The Hireling Shepherd is a painting with vivid colors, interesting subjects, and a dynamic scene, all paused and condensed into a single frame. The painting encompasses a whole field with ravines, crop fields, grass fields, sheep, and a shepherd. And when this painting was completed in 1851, it caused quite a controversy with the supposed meaning behind the scene and the use of the models. Let’s take a deeper look into William Holman Hunt’s The Hireling Shepherd.

The very first glance at the painting and the subject that takes your attention is the shepherd. You sense that there is something wrong with what’s happening in the scene. The shepherd is lost in love, flummoxed by the beauty of the woman in red, so much so that his sheep are non-existent for him. But what meaning does it hold? 

Lost in Love

The shepherd seems to have forgotten about his sheep completely. Bewitched by the beauty of the woman in red, with crimson hair and a rubicund complexion. She has a lamb of her own, sitting on her lap. The shepherd did not want her to be alone and he could do with some company. So he’s all around her, like a jolly kid, showing her a death’s-head moth. This is perhaps to impress her. 

While the woman is paying attention to the shepherd, she is more amused by his complete surrender of attention to her. One can look into her eyes and see the curiosity that is sparked by the demeanor of the man. 

Love Is Lost 

While the shepherd is lost in merriment, there is one thing that he forgets, the one thing he ought not to forget. He leaves his duty and his sheep are all unattended. One of them is moving towards the wheatfield. For all who are unaware, sheep should not be fed wheat. It is bad for their health and a large amount could be fatal. The shepherd knows that, but his flummoxed state inhibits him from doing so. 

While he was lost in love, what he ought to love is being lost.


The Meaning

So what does the painting mean? There have been a lot of arguments when the painting was completed and exhibited. Many critics complained about the use of the subjects to portray the overtly sexual nature of the red-haired, proletariat class people. It was said that the painting showed these people as illiterate being with nothing but a perverse sexually explicit demeanor.

The sheep that is astray
The sheep is led astray while the shepherd is busy with himself

But Hunt’s had something different to say about the painting. It turns out there was indeed a meaning behind the painting, but it wasn’t even close to what the critics had in their minds. Hunt had a religious message behind the painting. He said that the message behind the painting was taken from Shakespeare’s King Lear (Act III Scene 6) 

Sleepest or wakest thou, jolly shepherd?

Thy sheep be in the corn;

And for one blast of thy minikin mouth

Thy sheep shall take no harm.

King Lear, William Shakespeare

Hunt explained later what he wanted to convey through the painting. He said that the Shepherd is supposed to be the one caring for his sheep. The religious heads of Christianity are supposed to pay attention to the problems and qualms of the masses, of the believers of Christ. Yet, like the hireling shepherd, the churchmen are all lost and busy in pointless debates.

Hunt wanted to say that the “shepherd” is supposed to be like the Good Shepherd, Jesus. Yet they frolic in debates, trying to prove each other wrong. They are supposed to guide their followers and not be like the hireling shepherd. 

Without moral guidance, the followers (sheep) are bound to be astray and lead to someplace which might seem tempting, but end up hurting themselves. It is the task of the shepherd to prevent that from happening, rejecting all the distractions and temptations. 

About the Painting

Hunt was a Pre-Raphaelite painter, and that is the reason for the richness in colors in the painting and the intricate detailing, from the leaves to the crop fields afar in the background. If you observe the painting closely, you’ll observe the intricate details that the painter has put there. From the grass blades to the reflection of forage in the ravine. This makes painting very dense. 

The structure of the painting is also very symmetrical, something the Pre-Raphaelite artists were very careful of. The major subject of the painting is sitting at the center of the canvas, the first thing to get the viewers’ attention. Then the eyes shift to the right, where the sheep are resting. Then finally, we look at the right side of the canvas where the sheep are about to get into the wheatfields.

Finally, after all the important aspects of the painting have been observed, our eyes look for the finer details. There is also an overpowering red color and the reason it fits so perfectly is that the red is focused in the center, where the main subjects sit. The rest of the painting is mostly green. Red and green together flourish, bringing each other very well, complementing each other.

In conclusion, the painting looks magnificent with the details and settings. A fun fact; the girl in the painting was modeled after Emma Watkins who wanted to be a model, but sadly never succeeded. The Hireling Shepherd is a great painting with a great story. Thank you for spending your time with us.

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