William Holman Hunt images and biography
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William Holman Hunt

See also: Pre-Raphaelites


"In character Holman Hunt was completely different to Millais. Where Millais was affable and generous Holman Hunt was arrogant and unlikeable. His father was a warehouse manager in Cheapside, London, who ran an evangelical home where the young Holman Hunt spent considerable time reading the Bible. Holman Hunt left school early and went to work as a clerk at the age of 12. But office work bored him, he dreamed instead of being an artist, although he lacked the natural talent to be one. What he did have in abundance, however, were imagination and vision - rare qualities at a time when society was thrusting forward with post-Industrial Revolution fervor.

"Eventually he persuaded his reluctant parents to allow him to attend the R.A. Schools where he could pursue his ambition to be a painter. There he was soon completely disillusioned by contemporary British art, in which he could find nothing to emulate or admire. However he read John Ruskin's second volume of Modern Painters and was hugely impressed by his argument that artists should return to the style of late medieval and early Renaissance painters, particularly Venetian, in their style of art. This appealed to the young Holman Hunt, who had spiritual leanings, especially the idea of bringing symbolic realism into modern art, so that the viewer could read with the help of metaphors more than the story apparently tells.

"He met and became good, if unlikely, friends with Millais, another art student at the R.A. Both of them fostered the desire to get a painting into the 1848 R.A. Exhibition. Hunt in particular was anxious to get an acclaimed painting exhibited as he badly needed to sell paintings to make a living. They discussed ideas and techniques and painted in the studio together on their offerings for the exhibition. But while Hunt's painting was accepted, Millais's was not. Hunt had chosen a subject from a little known poem by a fairly obscure poet who had died in 1821: the poem was The Eve of St Agnes and the poet Keats. But a recently published biography and the re-publication of Keats's works led to a reassessment of his intensely visual poems. Furthermore, he too, had been very interested in Italian art before Raphael's time.

"Holman Hunt chose a scene from the poem when the hero Rienzi decides to revenge the death of his younger brother. The painting was painted in a flat medieval style and called Rienzi; it included a number of symbolic emblems, including a circlet of flowers around the sword hilt. Rossetti posed for Rienzi and Millais for his dead brother. Much of the landscape was painted outside on Hampstead Heath but the figures were all done indoors. The painting bore the mysterious appellation "P.R.B." The work was generally well received and considered to show great promise.

"By 1850 Hunt had finished A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids - better known simply as The Missionary. This picture appeared in the same exhibition as Millais's Christ in the House of his Parents. Both paintings received harsh criticism, although the main thrust was aimed at the latter, The Missionary was initially Hunt's entry piece for the Royal Academy Gold Medal Contest but the painting's most important consequence was that, through the good offices of Millais, Holman Hunt got to meet Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Combe. He was in his fifties and Superintendent of the Oxford University Press. He and his wife became very fond of Holman Hunt and in the course of time took on the role of surrogate parents to him as well as important patrons of the Pre-Raphaelites generally. Help also came in the shape of John Ruskin - the very man whose literary criticizm had opened Holman Hunt's eyes in the first place to symbolism and early Italian paintings. Ruskin wrote his influential letters to The Times and got to meet the artists themselves. In time he too became great friends with Holman Hunt and did a considerable amount to bolster the often discouraged and despairing Hunt.

"When Holman Hunt accompanied Millais to Worcester Park Farm he was in a very demoralized and depressed state of mind. But he started to conceive a picture that was apparently taken from King Lear but was in actual fact inspired by the New Testament, specifically Chapter 10 of St John's Gospel. The painting was finally entitled The Hireling Shepherd and became in time one of the best known of all Pre-Raphaelite works.

"Around the same time he decided to paint a companion piece to symbolize and record his conversion to religion: it proved a turning point in his artistic and spiritual life. The picture was The Light of the World, begun in 1851. This symbolized Christian salvation coming to a sinful world through the overabundant and sadly neglected undergrowth. To achieve realism he did much of this painting at night by the light of a lamp. The two works are full of symbolic meaning, the light and dark, the luxuriant, uncontrolled plants, and so on. He developed his own artistic language to describe the style that he termed "symbolic realism." With this he wanted to bring religious painting, specifically Christian, up to date for a post-Industrial audience to understand and appreciate, and to give modern churchgoers their own contemporary iconography.

"When the painting went on exhibition in 1853 it was harshly criticized initially as having suspiciously Catholic leanings, and once again Ruskin came to his rescue via The Times with a letter explaining its symbolism. Curiosity about the painting reached such a pitch that it went on a national tour. The Light of the World became so popular that Hunt was asked to paint a larger copy, which he did with an assistant's help (1900-04); this then toured the colonies until it finally came back to England, when it was presented to St. Paul's Cathedral in London.

"For the 1852 summer exhibition Holman Hunt painted the secular version of his religious work, The Awakening Conscience. In this picture a young woman starts up from the lap of her lover, struck by the sudden knowledge of her sin. The entire painting can be read for symbolism: the cat tormenting a bird, the scattered music sheets on the floor, the tangled embroidery threads, and so on.

"As a natural extension of his ever increasing personal religious convictions, Holman Hunt decided to visit the Holy Land to see and paint the Biblical locations for himself. His first visit lasted two years, 1854-56. During this time he traveled around Palestine and, as he did so, Biblical realism took over from the Pre-Raphaelite symbolic realism. He returned to England in 1856 and showed The Scapegoat, a painting of an old goat standing on the parched shore of the Dead Sea. The goat is a symbol of Christ carrying all the sins of the world on his shoulders, but is also the bearer of truth.

"In total Holman Hunt made four journeys to the Holy Land, painting the landscape and religious scenes. His burning ambition was to find the actual locations where Biblical events happened, and then paint them. These paintings were generally well received and he became rich on the reproduction rights of his Palestine pictures.

"Holman Hunt had a limited degree of success in his lifetime, he never became an influential artist as he so desperately wanted; and never had any followers despite having a long working life. In his lifetime he became best known as a religious painter and made a very comfortable living from his religious works, which still contained the Pre-Raphaelite's elaborate symbolism. For his early works he took a lot of unfair criticism, so much so that he seriously considered emigrating abroad, but he was tough and strongminded enough to carry on working in the style he wanted. In 1852 he applied for associate membership of the R.A. but was turned down. Proud man that he was, he never applied again."

- Text from "The Pre-Raphaelites", by Sandra Forty

Further reading on Holman Hunt:


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1850-53 Claudio and Isabella
1851-52 The Hireling Shepherd
1851-53 The Light of the World
1852 Our English Coasts, 1852 (Strayed Sheep)
1852 Our English Coasts, 1852 (Strayed Sheep) (detail)
1853 The Awakening Conscience
1854 The Scapegoat
1856 Godiva
1857 The Lady of Shalott
1858-60 Lorenzo at his Desk in the Warehouse
1860 Il Dolce Far Niente
1876 Isabella and the Pot of Basil
1883-84 The Triumph of the Innocents

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