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The Scapegoat, by William Holman Hunt


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About the artwork

In 1854 William Holman Hunt completed 'The Light of the World', which along with 'The Scapegoat' remains one of the best known religious images of the 19th century. His continuing interest in religious subjects for his paintings and a determination to paint directly from Nature culminated in his first trip to the Holy Land in 1854-6. Here he could pursue his desire to paint religious narratives in the landscape in which they took place.

He travelled to Jerusalem in June 1854 and then on to Oosdoom, on the southern shore of the Dead Sea, in October of that year. Here he started a smaller study for the Lady Lever painting, which is now in Manchester City Art Gallery. Before a second trip to the area in the November, he bought a rare, white goat in Jerusalem then spent about ten days working on the Lady Lever canvas at Oosdoom, painting the distant mountains and lake and making sketches of the goat. The goat proved a somewhat fidgety subject, refusing to stand still or hold a pose. When poor weather forced Hunt to return to Jerusalem for the winter, the goat died on the journey home.

By early 1855, Hunt had purchased another goat for use as a model and completed its image and the sky in his Jerusalem studio, having waited most of the winter for the right sort of clouds. In his diary he describes standing the long-suffering goat in a tray of salt and mud, collected in Oosdoom, to create the dried and cracked lake shore beneath his hoofs. In March he bought a camel skeleton and borrowed an ibex skull from a friend to add these grisly details to the painting.

The painting was not completed in time for the Royal Academy exhibition of 1855 but was submitted in 1856. People were puzzled by the subject of the painting and were generally uncomplimentary. A review in the Times commented, ‘Were it not for the title annexed it would be difficult to define the nature of the subject.’  Other criticisms were levelled at the composition and the artist’s concentration on his subject matter at the expense of draughtsmanship.  Ruskin’s review was particularly harsh when he said,

‘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’.

Hunt took his subject from Leviticus XV1 and the Jewish ceremony of Atonement held in the Temple at Jerusalem. Two goats were used during the proceedings; one was sacrificed as a burnt offering to God, the second was led out of Jerusalem to carry the sins of the community. A crowd followed this goat, jeering and chasing it.  Tied between its horns was a scarlet cloth which, if their offerings were accepted, would turn white. The whole episode was regarded as typological, a biblical Old Testament narrative prefiguring a New Testament event, in this case the sacrifice of Christ to carry away the sins of the world.

The frame was designed by Hunt in Jerusalem and was an integral part of the iconography of the image. He sent sketches and detailed letters to his frame maker, Joseph Green, in London. The carved design includes a dove with an olive branch, a heartsease set within a cross, a seven-branched candlestick and seven stars. Biblical inscriptions at top and bottom read as follows:

 ‘Surely he hath borne our Griefs and carried our Sorrows,
 yet did we esteem him, stricken, smitten of GOD and afflicted’.

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

The original frame is currently being conserved and this replica was carved and gilded by National Museums Liverpool’s Frame Conservator.

William Holman Hunt was a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848 with his close friends John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Their central concern was to work from nature wherever possible, using the pure, bright palettes of medieval and early renaissance painters whose works in the National Gallery they admired enormously. Their painting combined the use of translucent glazes over pure white grounds and small, perfectly blended brushstrokes to produce meticulously accurate detail. This style of painting was as far removed as one can imagine from the Academy school of painting, as typified by Sir Joshua Reynolds and his admirers.

The technique of The Scapegoat illustrates the principle characteristics of the Pre-Raphaelite school of painting. In August 1854, Hunt bought a length of extra-primed white canvas from the artists’ supplier Roberson which may well be that used for this painting. From his diaries of this period we know that he was using a copal varnish mixed with oil which gave a more brilliant colour and glossier finish to his paint. The use of pure transparent colour is illustrated in the purple mountains painted in madder, a transparent crimson pigment made from a plant root and a strong blue, either the newly discovered cobalt or the fabulously expensive natural ultramarine. This purple, painted in thin glazes over the reflective white ground, produces a colour with the intensity of stained glass.

Ford Madox Brown, a close friend of the Pre-Raphaelites, understood the powerful and dramatic nature of the painting better than most contemporaries. Although he disliked the harsh colour, he wrote that the picture ‘requires to be seen to be believed in and only then can it be understood how by the might of genius out of an old goat and some saline incrustations can be made one of the most tragic and impressive works in the annals of art.’