This startling picture is not only visually arresting, but perhaps topical these days, given the recent public discussion about predatory behavior by men. In the picture, a young man, evidently supposed to be keeping his eye on the sheep behind him, is instead making the moves on a young woman. The object in the man’s left hand is a death’s head moth (the kind made famous by the film Silence of the Lambs). Notice the woman’s expression: it’s hard to gauge, but it’s possible that she may be disgusted at his advances. If she was smiling, this would be a whole different picture, but the expression on her face, although open to interpretation, may be subtly indicating that this kind of thing has happened to her many times, and she’s sick of it. Virtually all women in our society can empathize.
This painting, called The Hireling Shepherd, caused something of a scandal when it appeared on the London art scene in 1851. Critics of the artist, William Holman Hunt, pilloried him for glorifying “coarse” sexuality, especially among the lower classes. Hunt was controversial at the time. He had founded a new artistic movement, the Pre-Rahphaelites, which emphasized exactly the kind of rich, realistic detail you see in this picture, especially when applied to nature. Art history is not really my bailiwick, so I’m a little hazy on the tenets of Pre-Raphaelism. But this is definitely a vivid picture, and one can see how it would ruffle some patrician feathers in mid-Victorian England.
Incidentally, Hunt was working on this picture at the same time, and in basically the same place, as his colleague John Everett Millais, who was finishing a picture called Ophelia which I very much like. In fact, I used that painting as the basis of a Photoshop composite for one of my favorite early articles on this blog, detailing the bizarre story of the “Dead Tea Woman” who washed ashore on the island of Nevis, in the Caribbean, in February 1809; that story eventually became an episode of my Second Decade podcast. Just coincidence that I happened to find this painting that was created in similar circumstances.
Hunt remained controversial throughout his career, especially after he married the sister of his deceased first wife, which was illegal in England at the time. Always on the prowl for passionate subjects, Hunt eventually traveled to the Holy Land and his pictures took on a more religious bent. He died in London in 1910.