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The Scapegoat, by William Holman Hunt

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About the artwork

On January 13th 1854, William Holman Hunt left London for the first of his pilgrimages to the Holy Land.  The Pre-Raphaelite artist was by his own admission fired by ‘Oriental mania’ after reading romantic literature such as Edward Lane’s translation of The Thousand and One Nights.  He was also keen to experience the real locations of Bible stories in order to authenticate his own artistic interpretations of religious narratives.

The Scapegoat was an appropriate subject for his first major painting executed in the Holy Land, for his trip was partly motivated by a crisis of religious faith.  The exhaustive effort invested in this work suggests that the subject was of particular significance to the artist and was perhaps a means of dealing with his personal burden of sin – specifically, the heavy feelings of guilt that accompanied his sexual relationship with model Annie Miller. 

Hunt discovered his subject matter on perusing the Book of Leviticus shortly after arriving in Jerusalem.  He read about the Jewish ritual which was enacted on the Day of Atonement which involved two goats: one of which was slaughtered as a sacrificial offering in the temple; the second was driven out of the city eventually to its death. This accursed creature symbolically carried with it the sins of the people and was readily associated by the artist with the Passion of Christ which also expurgated man’s sins. Tied between its horns was a scarlet cloth which would turn white if the offering was accepted by God.

In Leviticus, the animal was said to be banished to a land that was uninhabited. In his quest for realism, Hunt travelled over inhospitable and dangerous terrain to the shores of the Dead Sea.  In his diary, he described the site of Osdoom with the mountains of Edom in the distance as ‘a scene of beautifully arranged horrible wilderness’. He also chose this specific site as it was believed to have been the original location of Sodom - the Biblical city of sin and debauchery.

Accompanied by guides, Hunt made a number of trips to the site in order to paint and make notes, particularly on the light reflected on the Moab mountain range at the end of the day. During his first visit he had experienced a rainbow which he included in a preliminary painting (now in Manchester Art Gallery) but omitted in the larger work, perhaps in order to deny the viewer any sense of hope or optimism for this doomed creature’s fate.  On the second trip, he took with him a white goat which he’d bought in Jerusalem in order to sketch in situ.  The original goat did not survive its Dead Sea journey, but three subsequent models were painted in his Jerusalem studio, posed in a tray of mud and silt brought back from the scene.

Hunt’s painting received mixed reception when he exhibited it on his return to London. His symbolism proved too obscure for most critics. It was slated by the Athenaeum; ‘here is a dying goat which as a mere goat has no more interest for us than the sheep that furnished our yesterday’s dinner; but it is a type of the Saviour, says Mr Hunt, and quotes the Talmud’.

John Ruskin, who was usually supportive of the Pre Raphaelites’ daring efforts in realism, admired the faithful rendition of the Bible’s ‘condemned shore’ but felt that the artist, in his eagerness to convey emotion through the lurid colours of the background, had ‘forgotten to ask himself first, whether he could paint a goat at all’.

Ford Maddox Brown, however, understood the artist’s intentions when he wrote that the painting ‘requires to be seen to be believed...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’.

The frame was designed by the artist and was intended to complement the painting with quotes from Leviticus and Isaiah, and a combination of Christian and Jewish symbolism.  The painting is currently displayed in a replica frame as the original undergoes restoration at the Conservation Centre