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“The Scapegoat” by William Holman Hunt

William Holman Hunt - The Scapegoat

“The Scapegoat” by William Holman Hunt

“The Scapegoat” by William Holman Hunt shows a white goat with a red cloth between its horns. The goat stands on the salted shore of the Dead Sea. The background is an evening landscape with the setting sun reflected on a mountain range and a full moon low in the sky.

The desolate scene includes a skull to the left, and a dead animal’s skeletal remains to the right. The painting symbolizes the “scapegoat” described in the Book of Leviticus.

In the Bible, a scapegoat is one of two kid goats. One goat was sacrificed from the pair, and the living “scapegoat” was released into the wilderness, taking with it all sins and impurities.

The concept first appears in Leviticus, in which a goat is designated to be cast into the desert to carry away the sins of the community.

“The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region, and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.”

On the Day of Atonement, a goat would have its horns wrapped with red cloth, representing the community’s sins, and being driven off.

Hunt’s painting is notable for its attention to detail, vivid color, and symbolism. In the mid-1850s, Hunt traveled to the Holy Land in search of accurate topographical and ethnographical material for further religious artworks.

Hunt started this painting on the Dead Sea shore and continued it in his studio in London. “The Scapegoat” painting was created in two versions.

A small version in brighter colors with a dark-haired goat and a rainbow is exhibited in Manchester Art Gallery. A larger version in more muted tones with a light-haired goat is exhibited in the Lady Lever Art Gallery.

Both were created over the same period, with the smaller Manchester version being described as “preliminary” to the larger Lady Lever version, which was the one exhibited.

The Scapegoat

  • Title:                  The Scapegoat
  • Deutsch:           Der Sündenbock
  • Artist:                William Holman Hunt
  • Date:                 1854
  • Medium:           Oil on canvas
  • Style:                 Pre-Raphaelite
  • Dimensions:     Height: 33.7 cm (13.2 in); Width: 45.9 cm (18 in)
  • Museum:          Lady Lever Art Gallery

Holman Hunt Scapegoat

The smaller preliminary version of “The Scapegoat” by William Holman Hunt

The smaller preliminary version of “The Scapegoat” by William Holman Hunt is a vividly colored depiction of a reddish-brown colored goat on death’s brink. The goat stands with head lowered, haunches caving in, and tongue hanging out.

The desert landscape is barren, and in the distance is a range of hills in purple and pink, above which is a yellow and pink sky and almost black clouds in the right. In contrast to the dark clouds is a well-defined rainbow.

Hunt’s belief in direct observation for creating art led him to leave for Palestine in 1854 in search of biblical locations. Hunt wanted to experience the Biblical narratives’ actual locations and confront the relationship between faith and truth.

It was to the south of the Dead Sea, at Kharbet Esdun, which was then identified as the site of Sodom, that he painted the desolate landscape of his Scapegoat.

Hunt depicts the animal as an exile living in this uninhabited place, bearing the Jewish people’s sins. According to the Old Testament Bible, another goat was sacrificed and is depicted as drowned in the sea and whose horns can be seen on the left.

In the final version of this subject, the goat is white, a symbol of purity, with the red cloth around its horns and red paint smeared on the goat’s head. For Hunt, this image prefigures the Messiah wearing the crown of thorns, who, through his Passion, was to redeem the world’s sins.

These paintings were the major works completed by Hunt during his first trip to the Holy Land, to which he had traveled after a crisis of faith. 

This personal interpretation of the Holy Scriptures surprised people when the work was submitted to the Royal Academy in 1856. These images nevertheless had a haunting quality about them.


Practices with some similarities to the scapegoat ritual also appear in Ancient Greece and other ancient civilizations.

Ancient Greeks practiced scapegoating rituals in exceptional times, such as famine, drought, or plague, based on the belief that a few individuals’ repudiations would save the whole community.

In mythical tales, it was stressed that someone of high importance had to be sacrificed if the whole society were to benefit from the aversion of catastrophe.

However, in practice, since no person of power would be willing to sacrifice themselves or their children, the scapegoat in actual rituals would be someone of lower society without power.

A criminal, slave, or poor person would be given value through special treatment such as fine clothes and dining before the sacrificial ceremony.

The Scapegoat

  • Title:                  The Scapegoat
  • Français:            Le bouc émissaire
  • Artist:                William Holman Hunt
  • Date:                 1854
  • Medium:           Oil on canvas
  • Style:                 Pre-Raphaelite
  • Dimensions:     Height: 33.7 cm (13.2 in); Width: 45.9 cm (18 in)
  • Museum:          Manchester Art Gallery


Scapegoating is the practice of singling out a person or group for unmerited blame. Scapegoating may be conducted against individuals or groups.

The “Scapegoat Theory of Intergroup Conflict” explains the correlation between relative economic despair and increased prejudice and violence toward the least powerful groups.

Studies of racist violence show a correlation between poor economic conditions and outbreaks of violence against minority groups.

Scapegoating is more often conducted against individuals. A whipping boy or “fall guy” is a form of scapegoating.

William Holman Hunt

William Holman Hunt (1827 – 1910) was an English painter and one of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood founders. His paintings were notable for their incredible attention to detail, vivid color, and symbolism.

These features were influenced by the writings of John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle, according to whom the world itself should be read as a system of visual signs.

Of all the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Hunt remained most loyal to their ideals throughout his career. He was always keen to maximize the popular appeal and public visibility of his works.


The Pre-Raphaelites focused on painting subjects from modern life, and literature often used historical costumes for accuracy. They painted directly from nature itself, as accurately as possible, and with intense attention to detail.

The Pre-Raphaelites defined themselves as a reform movement, created a distinct name for their art, and published a periodical to promote their ideas.

The Pre-Raphaelites was a group of English painters, poets, and art critics, founded in 1848.

The group intended to reform art by rejecting what it considered the mechanistic approach first adopted by the artists who succeeded Raphael and Michelangelo, hence the name “Pre-Raphaelite.”

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood sought a return to the abundant detail, intense colors, and complex compositions of Pre-Raphaelite Italian art.

William Holman Hunt

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“The search for a scapegoat is the easiest of all hunting expeditions.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower


Photo Credit: William Holman Hunt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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