William Turner of Oxford—Shepherd Boy on a Hillside

Second place: Megan Blais

In the painting Shepherd Boy on a Hillside, by William Turner of Oxford, we see a young boy tending to a herd of sheep. The picture is covered in beautiful pastel color. As we look deeper into the scene, we can see the beauty of nature through the painting; in the sky we see clouds and birds flying high in fine detail. A specific part of the painting that caught my eye was the tree in the front right corner. This tree is broken down and in pieces, possibly even rotting from the inside becoming hollow. Although this tree is “flawed,” the author does a great job showing the beauty of this tree. Turner is showing us that just because the tree is flawed, it doesn’t make it any less beautiful. He draws tiny detailed snapped twigs and the broken branches yet shows they still create beautiful shapes, forms, and some even still have their flowers. You can see the many shades and colors that are still remaining within the broken tree. My interpretation of the picture is that this boy has spent hours tending to the herd. Shepherds would start their days bright and early at dawn and tend to livestock through the day. There are many, many sheep therefore the boy must work long hours to tend to them all. In the painting, the boy appears to be exhausted and takes a rest on the hilltop. We can tell that it is late in the day because the sun is going down and dusk is quickly approaching. So, after a long day at work, the boy is taking a rest. His workday is coming to an end and soon it will be dark, and he will not be able to work until the next day. The boy doesn’t just take a seat next to just any sheep. He sits next to the sheep that is most different than all the other sheep. The boy then starts to think deeper into why the sheep must be sitting alone. As you can see in the painting, all the other sheep are white. The white sheep are in small groups. Some are just near each other; others are cuddling with each other, but one way or another they have company. But the black sheep is not. The black sheep sits alone on the hilltop. In this moment the boy looks around at the world. He sees that everything around him is different. Some things might even be considered flawed because they are so different than its typical kind. But everything carries beauty. Different doesn’t make something ugly. I believe that the deeper message that the artist is trying to convey is that it is okay to be different. Just because someone is different in race, color, or ethnicity, doesn’t make them any uglier or less than anyone else. In my opinion, this art has a lot to do with racism because it was created in 1789–1862, when racism was a huge problem. In those times, people of color were seen to be less important and less attractive than those with fair skin. People didn’t see the beauty in differences. If someone wasn’t a specific color or ethnicity, it was automatically claimed that they are low life human beings who were separated from each other. The fair skin and whites only associated with one another, but anyone who was seen to be different would be isolated. A beautiful thing about this world is its multiracial people. If everyone was exactly the same, we could never see the beauty of difference.

About the author

Megan Blais studied English in the Humanities Department at Gateway Community College during the fall 2020 semester.

Read the next essay

Reference and top image
William Turner of Oxford, Shepherd Boy on a Hillside, 1840, oil on panel, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection