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William Holman Hunt

British Painter

William Holman Hunt Photo
Born: April 2, 1827
Cheapside, City of London, UK
Died: September 7, 1910
Kensington, London, UK
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The door of the human heart, can only be opened from the inside.
William Holman Hunt

Summary of William Holman Hunt

William Holman Hunt gained eminence initially as a founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Though the Brotherhood was short lived (some five years) Hunt remained true to its principles throughout his long career. A man of strong, some would say pious, Christian beliefs, Hunt was fastidious in his attention to picture detail and he used actual locations - many in the middle-East - to restage biblical parables and rituals in his canvases. Falling under the influence of the writings of John Ruskin, Hunt was invested in the principle of a spiritual truth and, like Ruskin, he believed that the job of the artist was to depict things truthfully while using art to promote and uphold moral integrity. Following a series of spectacular artistic triumphs, Hunt became seduced by the idea that he had been blessed with divine genius and his artistic energies were channelled into producing works that would challenge what he saw as the fashion for expressive indulgences in Academy paintings. His was a commitment rather to producing 'higher meaning' through what he called simply "good pictures".

Key Ideas

Biography of William Holman Hunt

William Holman Hunt Photo

The child of humble working-class parents (his father earned his living as a Cheapside warehouse manager) William Holman Hunt (he changed his name from Hobman Hunt on the discovery of the fact that a clerk had misspelled his name on his baptism certificate) was raised as a devout Christian, dedicating his early childhood to reading the Bible in its finest detail. This being Victorian England, Hunt began his working life aged just 12 as an office clerk. It would take a further five years before his parents agreed, albeit reluctantly, to his enrolment at the Royal Academy art school (in 1844). Once there, Hunt made the acquaintance of John Everett Millais and, a little later on, the painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Important Art by William Holman Hunt

The Awakening Conscience (1853)

The Awakening Conscience (1853)

The Awakening Conscience depicts a mistress rising from the lap of her lover, elevated - or enlightened - by a sudden realisation of Christian truth. As in many of Hunt's paintings, the theme of the picture is salvation, symbolized here by a shaft of light falling at the bottom right of the scene in an otherwise darkened interior picture frame. The painting is saturated with potential symbolism, from the gentleman's discarded glove - an allusion perhaps to how easily the woman could be cast aside - to the cat which is toying with a helpless, broken-winged bird. The picture is lent a distinctive style by the sumptuous and finely detailed interior decoration, a style familiar from contemporaneous works (such as Robert Tait's depiction of Carlyle's House). The symbolic mood of the picture, however, taints these material refinements with the added suggestion - or condemnation - of decadence. The rounded upper edge of the painting imitates the religious art of a dour historical past. But here we see evidence of Hunt's preference of working onto a brilliant white (rather than black) base, which he referred to as a "tempera" ground: that is an attempt "to treat the canvas support like a gessoed, quattrocento panel", according to the art historian Carol Jacobi.

Certain intriguing personal details surround Hunt's execution of the work meanwhile. His model for the picture was Annie Miller, a fifteen-year-old barmaid. Writer and curator Jan Marsh has explained the background: "Reading her possible fate into the subject of his Awakening Conscience... Hunt had arranged for her education... with the unspoken aim of making her his wife." Hunt seems to have got lost then between the aspirational Christian message of his painting, and his own pursuit of the young model. The frame of the work was designed by Hunt himself and, it too, is laden with symbolism through a star as a sign of spiritual revolution. On the spandrels of the painting (which are covered when the work is framed), Hunt later described in fastidious detail a restoration of the work which he conducted in 1882.

The Light of the World (1853)

The Light of the World (1853)

The Light of the World was Hunt's first critical success. Widely praised when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy, the work is an allegory, suggesting that Christ may knock at your door but the sinner must first answer that call if he or she is to find salvation. Indeed, Hunt felt that with art he had found his Christian calling. As he remarked in a letter to his friend W.B. Scott: "I painted the picture with what I thought, unworthy though I was, to be divine command and not simply a good subject." There is then a clear sense in which Hunt's paintings were much more than material constructions; they were moral parables too. Here for instance we see a manipulation of light in the picture that is in keeping with the idea that only a faith in Christ can deliver the sinner from darkness. Jacobi has noted additionally that, in keeping with his fine sable brush technique, and the admixture of varnish and oil paints, many technical aspects of Hunt's work took on "the quality of glass" and in so doing enhanced "the sense that the image is [being] viewed through a window rather than on a plane." This is especially true of The Light of the World which almost appears to glow (though that effect is hard to replicate through reproduction). Shortly after its exhibition at the Academy the painting was bought by Hunt's main patron Thomas Combe. On the event of her death in 1891, Combe's wife bequeathed £3,000 to be used to build a side chapel for the painting at Keble College, Oxford. Space was made in the south transept of the College's chapel by elevating the organ to a loft overhead. The painting is housed at Keble to this day.

The Thames at Chelsea, Evening (1853)

The Thames at Chelsea, Evening (1853)

This is a rare and interesting example of a non-figural painting by Hunt. Whereas the majority of his output was polychromatic (and figural) Hunt's depiction of the Thames is notable for its subdued, dour palette and its atmospheric subtlety. A little over half of the picture plane is occupied by the surface of the river and Hunt has paid careful attention to the reflections and texture in the water. Though the title of the work refers to Chelsea, Hunt's studio was on the wrong side of the river and this picture looks out towards Battersea on the opposite bank. Chimneys loom above the horizon and the night seems heavy with smog. But for an area at the top left of the picture, the sky is blotted with a thin, dark, brushy layer of paint. There is a suggestion of moonlight in the reflections on the water at bottom left. These consistent horizontal bands of reflection are contrasted by the long, vertical reflections cast by lights from the warehouses on the right-hand side of the picture.

Chelsea was home to a large population of artists around this time and, in the later decades of the nineteenth century, the Thames riverside became a popular subject for artists. The Thames at Chelsea was most famously painted and etched by Whistler (Hunt's nemesis according to several accounts) and his amanuensis Walter Greaves. Hunt's contribution to this subject is less well known yet this picture was painted around six years before Whistler's earliest depiction of the Thames. It is unclear if Whistler knew of Hunt's painting, but the Thames had been transformed into a subject worthy of detailed atmospheric observation earlier in the century by Turner (in works such as Moonlight, a Study at Millbank). Indeed, the crepuscular setting, the attention to industrial grime, and the choice of Chelsea - rather than a more rural, picturesque, stretch of the Thames like Richmond or Twickenham - marks this painting by Hunt as an important moment in the changing representation of the Thames in British art.

Content compiled and written by Luke Farey

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"William Holman Hunt Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Luke Farey
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 05 Nov 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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