Click on photos to enlarge.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

William Holman Hunt

William Holman Hunt Self-portrait, 1867
(Yes, he actually dressed that way.)
We have all known them. As an art teacher, I use to refer to this type as "someone who gives perfection a bad name." Today they're sometimes referred to as "Type A" personalities, which may refer to an older label, that being "Anal Retentive." Constipated or not, they are peculiar individuals to deal with in a classroom, and in their own way, every bit as difficult to teach as those right-brained, free spirits on the other end of the creative extreme. We've all seen the work of this type of artist. Sometimes we charitably call it "belabored." They're tenacious souls. Their working techniques are invariably "tight." Deadlines mean nothing to them. They take very well to technical instruction and usually have excellent eye-hand coordination, especially when working from two-dimensional sources, but any attempt to excite creative potential often flies right over their head, or bounces away like a ball off a wall. In the course of art history, around 1848, a small group of such individuals bloomed in English art when John Millais, William Michael Rosetti, and William Holman Hunt formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids, 1850, William Holman Hunt

Though not the most talented of the group, William Holman Hunt was by far the most dedicated, most productive, most persistent, and staunchest defender of this style of painting. It was, indeed, a way of life. It placed equal emphasis on moral rectitude, historical authenticity, and microscopic realism in pursuit of high-minded, spiritual subject matter. Drawing almost totally from literary sources, from English folklore, to Keats, to the Bible itself, Hunt in particular, was something of a workaholic poster boy for the group. During the early 1850s, he even went trekking off to the Middle-East in search of the kind of environmental authenticity that always marked his work. There he painted A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the persecution of the Druids (above). Any ambiguity in the painting was more that made up for in the title.

An Awakening of Conscience,
1853, William Holman Hunt
Though he later slogged through any number of paintings like this based upon religious subjects, one of Hunt's best from this early period was not religious at all. In 1853, he painted a relatively small work titled The Awakening of Conscious (left). The subject was prostitution. He was against it. In it Hunt depicted an attractive, fully clothed, young miss, wide-eyed as with some divine revelation, suddenly bolting upright from the lap of a young, stylishly attired, bearded, bespectacled, English gentleman. Apparently startled by some unseen elucidation she abruptly realizes the error of her ways. The painting attracted a storm of critical protest. Affluent Englishmen might keep beautiful young girls as mistresses; but an artist had no right to present such affairs on canvas. Today, we find the painting merely amusing in its Pre-Raphaelite, Victorian clutter, colors, and endlessly irritating attention to details. But at the time, it underlined graphically a secret sexual double standard; provoking outrage, not at the institution of prostitution, but because Hunt had dared shed light upon it. Insofar as the male-dominated, English social hierarchy was concerned, it was as if one of their own had suddenly turned upon them, stabbing them in the back with a paint brush.


  1. I've been startled lately to find some of the Pre-Raphaelite Bros growing on me lately. Edward Burne-Jones, mostly, but I like Ford Maddox Brown for his use of color. I've even clamped down on my gag reflex to Alma-Tadema, although he's never going to make my short list, or even my long list.

    As for ol' Hunt, well, "Awakening" is accessible for its narrative content and for the eternal figure of the jolly young dude: "Aww c'mon man, don't be so uptight!" I also like the way the three blue stars lead past the discarded glove to the interested cat. It's fun. But for all of the clutter, there's also a stiffness to its grid-and-diagonals composition. Everything converges relentlessly on those hands... but why?

  2. "Everything converges relentlessly on those hands... but why?"

    Because her left hand has a ring on every finger except the ring finger? Plus, the dude's left hand looks mummified in a close-up. Because folded hands symbolize prayer, or chastity?

    But I don't really know. I've always liked this painting, though I certainly don't get "horror" and "revulsion" from it--or spiritual inspiration, for that matter.

  3. Thanks for the comments--very thoughtful and insightful. Sorry there have been no posts since the one above. We live in Southeastern Ohio and have had no power since Friday, 6-29-12. There will be no more new items until we get power back and I can once more access my desktop. We had winds up to 80 mph, which brought down a tree in our front yard, coming within about ten feet of our house. No damage, just three days (so far) of intense heat and boredom.
    --Jim Lane