Reading the Painting — The Hireling Shepherd

Abhijit Chatterjee
3 min readApr 1, 2021

Post Graduate (Master of Arts) in English Literature and Philosophy

Pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt painted The Hireling Shepherd in 1851 when he was living and collaborating with John Everett Millais, another fellow pre-raphaelite painter. Hunt’s painting remains one of the most controversial depictions of pastoral life in art history. Researchers and academians have poured over the painting, trying to analyze its nuanced language and form.

The painting depicts a pastoral scene where a shepherd tries to woo (and flirt with) a village girl. But the posture and facial expressions of the woman indicates that she is evidently being harassed against her wishes by the shepherd. The aggressive posture of the shepherd and angular display of the tough musculature of the hand of the shepherd suggests the belligerent dominance of the male figure within the frame. The setup and the poses suggest that the personal space of the woman is being violated without her consent.

The violation of boundaries is also juxtaposed to the wayward flock of sheep in the background, without any guidance they move towards the field of crops which should have been out-of-bounds for the flock if the shepherd tended to them diligently.

When the painting was first displayed at the Royal Academy, it was accompanied by a quotation 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 painting delineates the idea of a false pastor through the image of the shepherd.

Is this all the painting depicts? On the surface — yes. But the Pre-Raphaelites meant art to be read as a text. Hence, one must read between the lines (so to speak) to witness the hidden symbolism within the painting. To grasp the true meaning (or message) of artwork was an intellectual exercise to the Pre-Raphaelites.

The shepherd is clothed in the traditional biblical garb of red and blue (the traditional ceremonial garb of Jesus), which signifies that he represents the divine authority in the painting — or more simply, the church. The duty of the church was to tend its flock (followers), but as depicted in the painting — the shepherd neglects his duties. The flock of sheep (in the background) have already strayed from its designated path. Some of the sheep are depicted as having already traversed into the dark woods (towards the right) and invade the field of crops.

The term ‘hireling’ denotes a person who merely works for material rewards. So, Hunt portrays the shepherd (the church authority) as being attracted towards materiality of the world. In doing so, he disregards the work entrusted to him.

The shepherd holds a death’s-head hawkmoth in his hand (over the shoulder of the girl). Death’s-head hawkmoths in painting signify death and corruption. A death’s-head hawkmoth famously appears in the movie-poster of The Silence of the Lambs.

Hunt suggests that the church authority has corrupted itself in its pursuit of materiality. It has become devoid of any higher ideals. It ensnares unsuspecting people with its supposed piety, but in reality, the church authority signifies spiritual death. The posturing of the shepherd also suggests that the church had become intensely patriarchal and misogynist in its outlook, relegating the status of women to mere material pursuits.

In the early exhibitions of the paintings, it was criticized for its vulgarity of the “country people” it depicted, though Hunt’s supporters insisted that the painting was an “unvarnished image of social fact”.

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