This singular picture, though in many respects faultful, and in some wholly a failure, is yet the one of all in the gallery which should furnish us with most food for thought. First, consider it simply as an indication of the temper and aim of the rising artists of England. Until of late years, young painters have been mostly divided into two groups: one poor, hard-working, and suffering, compelled more or less, for immediate bread, to obey whatever call might be made upon them by patron or publisher; the other, of perhaps more manifest cleverness or power, able in some degree to command the market, and apt to make the pursuit of art somewhat complementary to that of pleasure, so that a successful artist's studio has not been in general a place where idle and gay people would have found themselves ill at ease, or at a loss for amusement. But here is a young painter, the slave neither of poverty nor pleasure, emancipated from the garret, despising the green room, and selecting for his studio a place where he is liable certainly to no agreeable forms of interruption. He travels, not merely to fill his portfolio with pretty sketches, but in as determined a temper as ever mediaeval pilgrim, to do a certain work in the Holy Land. Arrived there, with the cloud of Eastern War gathered to the north of him, and involving, for most men, according to their adventurous or timid temper, either an interest which would at once have attracted them to its immediate field, or a terror which would have driven them from work in its threatening neighbourhood, he pursues calmly his original purpose; and while the hills of the Crimea were white with tents of war, and the fiercest passions of the nations of Europe burned in high funeral flames over their innumerable dead, one peaceful English tent was pitched beside a shipless sea, and the whole strength of an English heart spent in painting a weary goat, dying upon its salt sand.
(1) [For Ruskin's earliest references to Holman Hunt, see the letters to the Times of 1851, reprinted in Vol. XII. pp. 323, 324. In Lectures on Architecture and Painting (ibid., pp. 160, 161) Ruskin again called attention to Hunt's work. To the Academy of 1854 the painter sent "The Light of the World" (now in Keble College, Oxford) and "The Awakening Conscience." Ruskin wrote letters to the Times (May 5, 25) in description and praise of the pictures (Vol. XII. pp. 328-335). In the third volume of Modern Painters (1856) Ruskin referred to Hunt's choice of noble subject; and to his "Light of the World" as "the most perfect instance of expressional purpose with technical power which the world has yet produced." He also defended that picture from the charge of plagiarism (Vol. V. pp. 52, 429). In vol. iv. (1856) Ruskin again referred to Hunt's careful truth to Nature (Vol. VI. p. 80). Ruskin's praise did not avail, however, to find Hunt ready purchasers (see Contemporary Review, June 1886) ; and in the fifth volume of Modern Painters (1860) Ruskin refers to him as "fighting his way through all neglect and obloquy to the painting of e ‘Christ in the Temple'"(pt. ix. ch. xii. 9). In his later writings Ruskin also occasionally referred to Hunt. In the Eagle's Nest (1872), the "Light of the World " is referred to "as the most true and useful piece of religious vision which realistic art has yet embodied" ( 115); see also Catalogue of the Educational Series, No. 2. In his lectures on The Art of England (1884), D. G. Rossetti and Holman Hunt were taken by Ruskin as masters of "Realistic Schools of Painting," where a further reference to "The Scapegoat" is made in 11. With the analysis of Hunt's work there given (with special reference to "The Triumph of the Innocents") should be compared a passage in "The Three Colours of Pre-Raphaelitism "(in On the Old Road, i. 247, reprinted in a later volume of this edition). Holman Hunt's account of the circumstances in which he painted the "Scapegoat," and of the adventures he went through, is given in the Contemporary Review, 1886, pp. 829, 830. See also "Descriptive Catalogue of the Pictures in the Holman Hunt Exhibition held at the Fine Art Society, 1886," p. 9. Rossetti wrote of Hunt's pictures in this year's Academy: "Hunt sends only 'Scapegoat' a grand thing, but not for the public and a few lovely landscape drawings." 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 incrustations, can be made one of the most tragic and impressive works in the annals of art." Gambart, the picture-dealer, was less enthusiastic. "I wanted," he said," a nice religious picture, and he painted me a great goat."]
And utmost strength of heart it needed. Though the tradition that a bird cannot fly over this sea is an exaggeration, the air in its neighbourhood is stagnant and pestiferous, polluted by the decaying vegetation brought down by the Jordan in its floods; the bones of the beasts of burden that have died by the "way of the sea,"(1) lie like wrecks upon its edge, bared by the vultures and bleached by the salt ooze, which, though tideless, rises and falls irregularly, swollen or wasted. Swarms of flies, fed on the carcases, darken an atmosphere heavy at once with the poison of the marsh and the fever of the desert; and the Arabs themselves will not encamp for a night amidst the exhalations of the volcanic chasm.
(1) [Isaiah ix. 1; Matthew iv. 15.]
This place of study the young English painter chooses. He encamps a little way above it; sets his easel upon its actual shore ; pursues his work with patience through months of solitude; and paints, crag by crag, the purple mountains of Moab, and, grain by grain, the pale ashes of Gomorrah.
And I think his object was one worthy of such an effort. Of all the scenes in the Holy Land, there are none whose present aspect tends so distinctly to confirm the statements of Scripture as this condemned shore. It is therefore exactly the scene of which it might seem most desirable to give a perfect idea to those who cannot see it for themselves ; it is that also which fewest travelers are able to see; and which, I suppose, no one but Mr. Hunt himself would ever have dreamed of making the subject of a close pictorial study. The work was therefore worth his effort ; and he has connected it in a simple, but most touching way, with other subjects of reflection, by the figure of the animal upon its shore. This is, indeed, one of the instances in which the subject of a picture is wholly incapable of explaining itself; but, as we are too apt somewhat too hastily to accept at once a subject as intelligible and rightly painted, if we happen to know enough of the story to interest us in it, so we are apt, somewhat unkindly, to refuse a painter the little patience of inquiry or remembrance, which, once granted, would enable him to interest us all the more deeply, because the thoughts suggested were not entirely familiar. It is necessary, in this present instance, only to remember that the view taken by the Jews of the appointed sending forth of the scapegoat into the Wilderness was that it represented the carrying away of their sin into a place uninhabited and forgotten; and that the animal on whose head the sin was laid became accursed, so that, "though not commanded by the law, they used to maltreat the goat Azazel; to spit upon him, and to pluck off his hair."* The goat, thus tormented, and with a scarlet fillet bound about its brow, was driven by the multitude wildly out of the camp, and pursued into the Wilderness. The painter supposes it to have fled towards the Dead Sea, and to be just about to fall exhausted at sunset its hoofs entangled in the crust of salt upon the shore. The opposite mountains, seen in the fading light, are that chain of Abarim on which Moses died.(1)
* Sermon preached at Lothbury, by the Rev. H. Melvill. (Pulpit, Thursday, March 27, 1856.(2)
(1)[Deuteronomy xxxii. 49, 50.]
(2)[For Melvill, see Vol. I. p. 490 n. For the scapegoat, see Levitims xvi. 10.]
Now, we cannot, I think, esteem too highly, or receive too gratefully, the temper and the toil which have produced this picture for us. Consider for a little while the feelings involved in its conception, and the self-denial and resolve needed for its execution; and compare them with the modes of thought in which our former painters used to furnish us annually with their "Cattle pieces" or "Lake scenes," and 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. But, at the same time, this picture indicates a danger to our students of a kind hitherto unknown in any school the danger of a too great intensity of feeling, making them forget the requirements of painting as an art. This picture regarded merely as a landscape, or as a composition, is a total failure. The mind of the painter has been so excited by the circumstances of the scene, that, like a youth expressing his earnest feeling by feeble verse (which seems to him good, because he means so much by it), Mr. Hunt has been blinded by his intense sentiment to the real weakness of the pictorial expression; and in his earnest desire to paint the Scapegoat, has forgotten to ask himself first, whether he could paint a goat at all.
I am not surprised that he should fail in painting the distant mountains; for the forms of large distant landscape are a quite new study to the Pre-Raphaelites, and they cannot be expected to conquer them at first : but it is a great disappointment to me to observe, even in the painting of the goat itself, and of the fillet on its brow, a nearly total want of all that effective manipulation which Mr. Hunt displayed in his earlier pictures. I do not say that there is absolute want of skill there may be difficulties encountered which I do not perceive but the difficulties, whatever they may have been, are not conquered: this maybe very faithful and very wonderful painting but it is not good painting; and much as I esteem feeling and thought in all works of art, still I repeat, again and again, a painter's business is first to paint. No one could sympathize more than I with the general feeling displayed in the "Light of the World"; but unless it had been accompanied with perfectly good nettle painting, and ivy painting, and jewel painting, I should never have praised it;(l) and though I acknowledge the good purpose of this picture, yet, inasmuch as there is no good hair painting, nor hoof painting in it,* I hold it to be good only as an omen, not as an achievement; and I have hardly ever seen a composition, left apparently almost to chance, come so unluckily: the insertion of the animal in the exact centre of the canvas making it look as if it were painted for a sign. I can only, therefore, in thanking Mr. Hunt heartily for his work pray him, for practice' sake, now to paint a few pictures with less feeling in them, and more handling.
* I believe, however, the painter was under worse difficulty in painting this goat than even with his sheep picture, (2) it being, of course, impossible to get the animal to stand still for a moment in an attitude indicating utter weariness. Observe also, that though heavily painted, yet being done every whit from Nature, the picture lights the room, far away, just as Turner's used to do (and compare the notes on Nos. 873 and 1002). Only Turner never makes a reflection in water brighter than the sky above it, which, unless the crystals of salt whiten the surface even of this glowing water, seems to be the case here. I suppose the water was painted at one season of the year and the sky at another both from nature, but, in result, discordant, and afterwards unalterable, as the complex hues of those farfollowed reflections do not admit of "toning down," but by separately repainting every one. Observe, finally, the picture should, if possible, be seen on a dark day, or in twilight, when its fullest effect is developed.
(1) [See Vol. XII. p. 331.]
(2) [" Strayed Sheep," exhibited at the Academy in 1853 sheep in a cliff landscape, studied near Hastings. Ruskin refers to the picture in the Art of England (§ 11) as marking an era in landscape painting. It is in the possession of Mr. George L. Craik, by whom it was lent to the Ruskin Exhibition at Manchester, 1904 (No. 195).]