Wednesday, August 13, 2008

"The Scapegoat" by William Holman Hunt

The Scapegoat William Holman Hunt

As promised, this is the last of the William Holman Hunt goat/sheep series. We started with The Hireling Shepherd, and yesterday we examined Our English Coasts. Today I'll be looking at The Scapegoat.

William Holman Hunt left London for the Holy land to find inspiration for his work on January 13, 1854. When he arrived in Jerusalem, he began reading the book of Leviticus and was particularly impressed by its account of the Day of Atonement. Leviticus records how on the Day of Atonement, the Jews were instructed to take two goats and sacrifice one in front of the temple and drive the other outside of the city to its death--symbolically carrying the sins of the people away with it. Hunt immeadiately connected the tale to the story of Christ's Passion, and thought it would make a fantastic subject for his next painting.

In spite of the safety concerns in the region (in the 1850s, just like today, there was a lot of unrest around Jerusalem, but a lot less security!), Hunt set out into the countryside to start painting The Scapegoat, using the Dead Sea as his backdrop. Hunt later recorded his adventures in his book Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (1905):

I suspended my painting and looked from beneath my umbrella, until suddenly the
deeshman [armed tribesmen] emerged from behind the mountain within half a
furlong of me where they halted. The horsemen had their faces covered with black
kufeyiahs, and carried long spears, while the footmen carried guns, swords and
clubs...I continued placidly conveying my paint from palatte to canvas,
steadying my touch by resting the hand on my double-barrelled gun. I knew that
my whole chance depended upon the exhibition of utter unconcern, and I continued
as steadily as if in my studio at home...

It certainly sounds as if Hunt had an exciting time! (At the very least, he was a great story teller!). I love how he portrays himself as the romantic hero.

Nevertheless, when local tensions escalated, Hunt was forced to abandon his field work to finish the painting in his studio. But in order to preserve the integrity of his painting, he took samples of the mud and salt from the Dead Sea back to his studio and purchased sheep and goat skulls and a full camel skeleton to add into the background of the painting (for more info, see this article from the Liverpool Museum about the painting). There weren't very many laws to protect animals in those days, and so Hunt took a live goat to his studio and made it stand for hours in a tray of dried mud so that he could paint it as accurately as possible. No wonder the goat looks so miserable! No word on what happened to the goat after the painting was completed.

Sadly, for all of Hunt's attention to detail, The Scapegoat was poorly received when it was shown in London. Although Hunt provided a note "See Leviticus, xvi" ('And the Goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a Land not inhabited'), members of the academy complained that the symoblism of the painting was too hard to understand. Others felt that it was blasphemous to use a goat as an allegory for Christ's Passion.

Nevertheless, at least one member of the Royal Academy was impressed:

I think we shall see cause to hold this picture as one more truly honourable
to us, and more deep and sure in its promise of future greatness in our schools
of painting, than all the works of "high art" that since the
foundation of
the Academy have ever taxed the wonder, or weariness, of
the English Public.
--Academy Notes, 1856, 14.64 in Hewison
Fortunately for Hunt, the controversy didn't discourage buyers, and the painting was sold for 450 guineas.

Source consulted: Hewison, Robert. Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites. London: Tate Gallery Publishing, 2000.
Image courtesy wikimedia commons


skatej said...

Blasphemous to use a goat to depict the passion of Christ, but absolutely a necessity to Christianity to acknowledge Christ as the "Lamb of God". Did they have trouble with the "Separating sheep from goats" scripture and then the depiction of a goat, or did they simply forget scripture?
Silly critics.

Margaret said...

I have no idea why it was so difficult for them to understand. It's certainly odd that they didn't make the connection. Perhaps in the 19th century it was more novel to think of Christ as something of a scapegoat/lamb that was slain, etc., etc.?

M.Kate said...

This is very interesting Margaret..dont know much about the history before, so tks a million for sharing :D

Sabina said...

Wonderful blog!!

Margaret said...

Thanks, Sabina!

Anonymous said...

Hi Margaret, I think there was a big differece in seeing Jesus as a lamb of God- lambs are white sweet innocent looking where as this goat is more scraggy, lived in and looks unhappy instead of the happy to fulfil his destiny, as the images of Jesus were at the time. This painting shows death, isolation, and pain. I think it was too realistic for the Victorian mind to appreciate.

I've seen this painting in real life and it is so realistic -you can see that this was not an English landscape. Even some of the sand has blown in to the wet paint.

Margaret said...

Hi Melanie,

I agree. Hunt's portrayal of Christ simply didn't fit in with the Victorian image of Christ as the gentle lamb of God.

By the way, I've had some questions about the red cord between the goats horns. Hunt tied the red string to the goat to represent the sins of the people (which God would remove if he accepted the sacrifice). The red string has been re-popularized by the Kabbalah folks (you've probably seen Madonna running around wearing one). Anyway, the red string Hunt tied on the goat was the same thing!

John said...

Margaret, as a pre-Raphaelite enthusiast, I'm thoroughly enjoying reading the treasure-trove of information on your page...

"The Scapegoat", as you will know, is on display in the Lady Lever Art Gallery on Merseyside, England, (not very far from me). A wonderful place to visit, not just for this painting, but for its marvellous collection of pre-Raphaelites as a whole.

Anonymous said...

There is nothing blasphemous about regarding the Scapegoat (Leviticus VI:20) as a figure of Christ. The identification was made already in the first-century Epistle of Barnabas, Chap. VII, (especially 1530), which also explains the goat's red headband. See: