Monday, 22 September 2008

COMMENTARY: 'The Hireling Shepherd' by William Holman Hunt

Published: STUDENT DIRECT, 22nd September 2008
"Close Look"
This painting of Hunt’s, one of the major names in the pre-Raphaelite movement, always catches my eye twice. Something about it makes me need to examine the situation, work out what doesn’t sit right. Maybe it is the girl’s suspicious but sultry sideways glance. Maybe it is the bright, precise colours and lines of the assumably soft rural setting. Or it could be the fact that this painting has a story to tell of two people’s relationship; yet we don’t know what it is. Who are they? What are they saying to each other? Why does it feel tainted?

The answer, if there must be one, lies in the title. The Hireling Shepherd is a quote from Shakespeare’s King Lear, in which Edgar sings the tale of a Shepherd who neglects his duty and his sheep. In Hunt’s painting this is portrayed by a lamb wandering off unnoticed into a golden field, potentially ruining a farmer’s crop, while beauty, youth and desire distract the couple. The message of pastoral neglect and its consequences, takes on an extended social critique, when we look closer at the two sweethearts. The girl with her blood red skirt and forthright body language seems to be luring the man away from the right path of action. The apples on her lap, rotting, make her reminiscent of Eve tempting man to sin.

However the quite heavy moral message of this beautiful painting is not immediately obvious. At first we seem merely to be witnessing love. It is only on second glance that we see that this love sits inharmoniously with social expectations, duty and seemingly nature.

It is the sharpness with which Hunt portrays the landscape that empathises this moral. The focus brings out the harsh reality of the situation. The countryside is idyllic; the pool of water by the girl’s feet remains still, yet the image creates turmoil within the viewer; a sense of wrongdoing and future negative consequences.

It is a clever and expertly executed painting that everyone should look at.

'The Hireling Shepherd' by William Holman Hunt can be seen at Manchester Art Gallery.

1 comment: