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William Holman Hunt

British Painter

William Holman Hunt Photo
Movements and Styles: The Pre-Raphaelites, Naturalism, Orientalism

Born: April 2, 1827 - Cheapside, City of London, UK

Died: September 7, 1910 - Kensington, London, UK

"The door of the human heart, can only be opened from the inside."

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

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.
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.

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