William Holman Hunt
Cheapside, City of London, UK
Kensington, London, UK
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".
- Leading the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood movement, Hunt, with colleagues John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, challenged what they saw as the artifice and decadence behind the era's fashion for dramatic historical narratives. Hunt was committed to a less romantic, more honest art, and, in looking back to a period before the High Renaissance, Hunt sought divine inspiration in the purity and symbolism of medieval and religious fables found in 15th-century Florentine and Sienese painting.
- The son of devout parents, Hunt came to see himself very much as an agent of Christ. His paintings were revered and criticized in equal measure for their piety and the artist's painstaking attention to detail. His canvases, often characterized by the vitality of their lighting and color, gained praise (and condemnation from the likes of Charles Dickens no less) for the way Hunt treated bible stories and medieval themes with an unabashed realism. In response to his critics, and executed in a tone of unabashed self-promotion, Hunt would go on to publish a series of articles through which he advanced a staunch defence of the Brotherhood's ideals and, indeed, his starring role as principal in its formation and development.
- Falling under the influence of the polemicist (and patron) John Ruskin, Hunt found spiritual intensity in the precise elegance in figurative archetypes, and in objects found in nature. For some of his most renowned works, Hunt had travelled to the Holy Land in order to bring a contemporaneous truthfulness to his religious narratives. Moreover, Hunt believed that it was the duty of the artist - especially so in these times of new scientific enlightenment - to promote moral values through their work. And though his earnest parables were infused with Christian symbolism, they carried extra integrity in their earthly geographical staging.
- Hunt's most famous and influential work, The Light of the World (1853), brought the artist international fame. The painting, a contemporary portrayal of Christ, gained huge popularity, especially in Victorian England and America, and its appeal reached well beyond the confines of the rarefied art world. The painting became popularized with the help of an engraved version, and through its subsequent inclusion in sermons, devotional poetry (such as John L. Tupper's The Light of the World (1955)) and book illustrations. The work's popularity convinced Hunt that the spiritual symbolism expressed in the painting had connected directly with a collective public consciousness, and for that reason alone, Hunt believed that The Light of the World had fully vindicated his artistic mission.
Biography of William Holman Hunt
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 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 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.
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.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on William Holman Hunt
- William Holman Hunt and his Works: A Memoir of the Artist's Life, with Description of his PicturesBy F. G. Stephens
- The Pre-Raphaelites: Their Lives in Letters and DiariesBy Jan Marsh
- William Holman Hunt. A BiographyBy A.C. Gissing
- My Grandfather, His Wives and LoveBy Diana Holman-Hunt
- Modern Painters, Old Masters: The Art of Imitations from the Pre-Raphaelites to the First World WarBy Elizabeth Prettejohn
- William Holman Hunt: A Catalogue RaisonnéBy Judith Bronkhurst
- The Lure of the East: British Orientalist PaintingBy Nicholas Tromans and Emily Weeks
- William Holman Hunt: Painter, Painting, PaintBy Carol Jacobi