The Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt

The Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt (Lady Lever Gallery) 1854

Normally I try and publish my daily blog in the morning but today I am late, but for a very good reason.  I think we all agree that to stand in front of the actual painting is vastly more satisfying than looking at it on the internet or in a book, so although I had made notes for today’s blog I decided that I would go and see the actual painting before publishing my thoughts.

My featured artist today is William Holman Hunt, the English Pre-Raphaelite painter.  In 1854 he had just completed The Light of the World,  which to this day, remains one of the best known religious paintings of the 19th century.  Hunt wanted to carry on painting religious subjects but decided that any future paintings involving biblical subjects should be painted in the very places where they happened.  So in 1854 Hunt decided to journey to the Holy Lands.  This was typical of Hunt’s thoroughness, and also typical of the rational, scientific spirit of the age.     Another reason for the journey was that it was also at this point in his life when he was suffering a crisis of religious faith and he believed that such a visit to the Holy Lands may bring him a better understanding of his faith.  However, his move away from his friends, Millais and Rossetti effectively marked the beginning of the end of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which they had founded six years earlier.  

The subject of today’s featured painting in My Daily Art Display is entitled The Scapegoat and the subject is derived from the Talmudic tradition of driving a sacrificial white goat out into the wilderness on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).  A strip of red wool was bound to the goat’s horns, in the belief that it would turn white if the appeasement was accepted.  This also harked back to the Book of Isaiah 1:18:

Come now, let’s settle this,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, I will make them as white as snow. Though they are red like crimson, I will make them as white as wool.

Hunt regarded the Old Testament scapegoat as a forerunner of the New Testament Christ whose suffering and death similarly expunged man’s sins.

Hunt travelled first to Jerusalem in June 1854 and then in the October on to Oosdoom, a place on the southern edge of the salt-encrusted shallows of the Dead Sea.  In his diary Hunt described this setting as:

 ‘“…never was so extraordinary a scene of beautifully arranged horrible wilderness. It is black, full of asphalte scum and in the hand slimy, and smarting as a sting — No one can stand and say that it is not accursed of God…”

Hunt saw the Dead Sea as a ‘horrible figure of sin’,  believing as did many at this time, that it was the original site of the city of Sodom.    Here he remained painting the landscape, the mountains of Edom, and the lake which would become the background of the painting.  He also made preliminary sketches of the goat.  However the goat proved to be a “fidgety model” refusing to stand still.  Bad weather forced Hunt to head back to Jerusalem.   He had not completed the picture of the goat so brought it, some Dead Sea mud and stones back to his studio in Jerusalem so as to complete the work. However, on the journey back the goat died.  Hunt bought another goat and proceeded to have it stand in a tray of salty Dead Sea mud and stones which he had brought back to his studio and continued with the painting.  To complete the details of the painting he bought a skeleton of a camel and the skull of an ibex both of which he incorporated into the painting. 

The Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt (Manchester Art Gallery) 1854

He made two copies of the painting, one (above) of which is a smaller version with a black goat and a rainbow symbolising hope and forgiveness of sins and this can be found in the Manchester Art Gallery, and the other (at the top of the page) hangs in the Lady Lever Gallery, Port Sunlight.  

Inscription along top of frame

The Lady Lever Art Gallery painting has an inscription engraved onto its frame, which was designed by Hunt himself.   It was intended to compliment the painting.  The seven stars at the top may have come from the apocalyptic text mentioning the seven stars that fell on the day of wrath or it may indicate the Book of Revelation’s “ancient” Christ who held seven stars in his right hand.   On the top of the frame, as wel,l is the inscribed a scriptural text from Isaiah 53:4:

” Surely he hath borne our Griefs, and carried our Sorrows:

yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of GOD, and afflicted. “

and on the bottom part of the frame are the words from the Book of Leviticus 16:22:

“And the Goat shall bear upon him all their Iniquities unto a Land not inhabited.”

 Hunt submitted the painting to the Royal Academy exhibition of 1856 where it was greeted with puzzlement and derogatory remarks.  The landscape colour was described as “lurid”.  Hunt was not put off by that comment and the purple colour of his mountains subsequently became the hallmark of much of his landscape painting.

John Ruskin, the foremost art critic of the time, commented:

‘…This picture, regarded merely as a landscape, or as a composition, is a total failure.   Mr Hunt …in his earnest desire to paint the Scapegoat has forgotten to ask himself first, whether he could paint a goat at all…’

His Pre-Raphaelite Brethren commented differently.  Dante Gabriel Rossetti said of the painting:

“…a grand thing, but not for the public…”

Ford Madox Brown wrote in his diary:

“….Hunt’s Scapegoat requires to be seen to be believed in. Only then can it be understood how, by the might of genius, out of an old goat, and some saline encrustations, can be made one of the most tragic and impressive works in the annals of art….”.

You must make up your own mind about this work of art.  I side with Ford Madox Brown. I stood in front of the painting this afternoon and was moved by the tragic and heart-rending depiction of the goat as it stumbles alone along the salt-encrusted shoreline, to what we know will inevitably culminate in its lonely death.  

I love the way in which Hunt’s use of colour to depict the Jordanian mountains in the background.    This was certainly one of the most original painting by Holman Hunt.  Maybe one should say it was one of his most peculiar works of art.  People are divided in their views.  Whilst some admire the painting for its exceptional and powerful image in such an unusual setting, others dislike it and wonder why the artist spent so much time and effort on such a gloomy subject.

I will let you be the judge.