“analysis of art history through the lens of ecocriticism” (Emily Beaulieu, on William Holman Hunt’s “Hireling Shepherd”)

Image: “Circe Invidiosa is a painting by John William Waterhouse completed in 1892. It is his second depiction, after Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses (1891), of the classical mythological character Circe. This particular mythological portrayal is based on Ovid’s tale in Metamorphoses, wherein Circe turns Scylla into a sea monster, solely because Glaucus scorned the enchantress’ romantic advances in hopes of attaining Scylla’s love instead. Waterhouse later returned to the subject of Circe a third time with The Sorceress(1911). Circe Invidiosa is part of the collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia, which also owns Waterhouse’s 1883 The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius.” (Wikipedia)

Allen Staley in his account of Ferdinand Lured by Ariel:
“The microscopic natural detail appears at the expense of space, atmosphere, or any feeling of light and shade. It fills a substantial part of the picture, but, allied to the fairy subject, it seems to belong to a world of dreams and enchantment rather than to the world as we normally know it. The hyper-real clarity of delineation does not contradict, but enhances the sense of fantasy.”


George P. Landow: “When (Holman Hunt) exhibited (The Hireling Shepherd) at the Royal Academy, he included these lines from King Lear as an epigraph:

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]”

From Wikipedia:

“Little Boy Blue, come blow your horn,
The sheep’s in the meadow, the cow’s in the corn.
Where is that boy who looks after the sheep?
He’s under a haystack, fast asleep.
Will you wake him? Oh no, not I,
For if I do, he’ll surely cry.”

It has been argued that Little Boy Blue was intended to represent Cardinal Wolsey, who was the son of an Ipswich butcher, who may have acted as a hayward to his father’s livestock, but there is no corroborative evidence to support this assertion. A more plausible, simpler, suggestion, avoiding any reference to Wolsey, is made by George Homans in his book English Villagers of the 13th Century, who writes, after quoting Piers Plowman’s description of the hayward and his horn: “The hayward’s horn, his badge of office, must have been used to give warning that cattle or other trespassers were in the corn. Little Boy Blue was a hayward.”


“Typically understood as a pointed criticism of the English clergy, the message of The Hireling Shepherd by William Holman Hunt is uncovered in Beaulieu’s paper as a complex intersection between humankind, nature, and religion.”

From: Signs for the Times – Symbolic Realism in the Mid-Victorian World (1984), by Chris Brooks:

“In a letter purporting to have been written from Cimabue Cottage, Camden Town, a Punch persona lamented: “My husband used to see things as other people do but he has lately become a Pre-Raphaelite.’


This is really the crucial point. Despite Hunt’s and Millais’ claim to be simple reproducers of external reality, despite Ruskin’s defence of their rendering of the external world, the art of the Pre-Raphaelites constructs a unique visual reality. Theirs is a realism of parts, not of wholes. Their paintings seem to argue that reality can no longer be structured in any conventionally coherent manner: there are too many separate realities within it. Perspective, gradient, chiaroscuro are felt to be evasive techniques, encouraging a retreat from the insistent physicality of external things. In The Hireling Shepherd, Hunt displays the world with an almost shocking clarity: the bark of the trees, the wing markings of the moth, the individual blades of grass, the hair of the rustics, crisp and clear as copper wire. Here is a realist technique that, by the demands it makes upon the spectator’s visual grasp, disrupts realism, constantly restricting perception to a low level of integration, a level at which the component parts of a percept resist integration into a larger whole. With subversive effect, Pre-Raphaelitism represents the reality we know, empirically, to exist upon a high level of integration in such a way that we see it as existing upon a low level. The Hireling Shepherd remains hauntingly disturbing because it suggests – with an odd reminiscence of Bitzer –


that the world is made up of parts, not living wholes.”

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