Tuesday, July 7, 2009

William Holman Hunt & the Pre-Raphaelite Vision

William Holman Hunt's "Our English Coasts" (1852).

William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) was one of the founders, along with Rossetti and Millais, of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of nineteenth-century British artists who rejected the current academic style of painting, influenced by the classicism of Raphael, and sought to emulate the style of the earlier Renaissance. Their canvasses were generally busier, more rich in color, and more full of symbolism, and were often commentaries on Victorian social, moral, and religious life. "Our English Coasts" (1852), for example, demonstrates Hunt's marvelous use of light and color, his naturalism and attention to detail, and also (though less overtly) his use of symbolism and social commentary. The alternate title is "The Strayed Sheep," giving the painting Christian connotations. The painting also reflects the vulnerability of England to foreign invasion, especially in 1852, when Napoleon III had just declared the restoration of the French Empire.

The Awakening Conscience (1853)

William Holman Hunt is the focus of a terrific exhibition currently running at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, titled Sin and Salvation: William Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite Vision. The exhibition fills five rooms, and features genre paintings (scenes from Shakespeare and from the life of Christ), portraits, and landscapes. The exhibition begins and ends with two interestingly similar paintings from the beginning and end of Hunt's career. The exhibition begins with "The Awakening Conscience"(1853), which was a sort of companion piece to Hunt's "The Light of the World," in which Jesus, holding a lantern, is seen knocking on an overgrown, apparently long-unused door. The woman in "The Awakening Conscience" is attempting to rise from her lover's lap and respond to something—the call of conscience, Christ's knock on the door.

The Lady of Shalott (1905)

The exhibition ends with "The Lady of Shalott" (1905), based on Tennyson's poem. The Lady is confined to a tower, where she can only view the outside world through a mirror, and where she spends her days weaving tapestries. One day, Sir Lancelot rides past, and she is so filled with passion for him that she turns and looks out the window. When she looks at the world directly, the mirror cracks, the tapestry is destroyed, and the Lady languishes. Hunt's painting shows the Lady tangled in the threads of her tapestry, with Lancelot reflected in the cracked mirror.

Looking at "The Awakening Conscience" again as I left the gallery, I noticed that the woman in that earlier painting seems entangled with her lover, as the Lady of Shalott his tangled in her threads. Colored yarn is unraveled on the floor near the foot of the piano. She's turning away from a mirror that reflects the outside world. The woman in "The Awakening Conscience" seems to be drawn away from private passions and pleasures toward moral engagement with the world outside herself. The Lady of Shalott is drawn by passion for Sir Lancelot to look outside the closed world of her art, and she sacrifices both the integrity of her art and her life.

Hunt's career, as presented in the exhibition, seems framed between the ideals of moral engagement and artistic purity. Is it possible to answer the call to engage with the world outside oneself while still maintaining the platonic purity of one's inner vision?

The exhibition, which runs through September 6, is both beautiful and thought-provoking, and highly recommended.

Image credits.
"Our English Coasts" and "The Awakening Conscience" are from the collection of the Tate Britain, London. The large version of the "The Lady of Shalott" on display at the MIA is from the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT.

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