This painting is based on a design drawn by Millais for engraving by the Dalziel Brothers to illustrate The Parables of Our Lord, published in 1863. The book featured twenty woodcuts from designs by Millais.
In the scene depicted, a field has been planted with good seed but an enemy comes at night to sow tares, or evil seeds, among the wheat. Millais' composition and light effects convey the terror of this story. The enemy is a figure of horrifying ugliness, stooping to his evil work and surrounded by darkness. Streaks of light break the gloom of the sky and cast sinister gleams on the figure from behind, illuminating his bare feet and the arm that is sowing the tares.
The single-figure composition is unconventional for Biblical history painting. The painting was offered to the Royal Academy by Millais as his Diploma work, but was rejected. There is a smaller oil version at Buscot Park and a watercolour in the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester.