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Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelites

Updated on October 24, 2011
Holman Hunt Valentine Rescuing Sylvia
Holman Hunt Valentine Rescuing Sylvia

William Holman Hunt was born April 2, 1827, in Cheapside, London. He was one of the very first pre-Raphaelites, and may have actually initiated that movement in art. He was by his very nature and in his very soul an artist: still, his initial application to the Royal Academy art schools was rejected.

After his eventual acceptance into the Royal Academy to study art, William Holman Hunt, or Holman Hunt, as he became known as an artist, rebelled against the conventions of art as dictated by the school. The Royal Academy laid down the principles of "good" art according to the dictates of its founder, Sir Joshua Reynolds, whose famous works are portraits of royalty and the wealthy upper class. That art is formal and rather stiff.

Holman Hunt very much preferred the look and feel of art from an earlier time, from before Raphael and the Renaissance; hence, Holman Hunt was a "pre-Raphaelite". It was a reversion to an earlier era in art.

Holman Hunt was a more spiritual painter. His subjects were often religious subjects, or subjects with a moral behind them. Holman Hunt admired medieval art--the richness of its colors, the blatant religiousness of its subjects, and the vivid, though stylized, mannerisms of its patina and coat.

In Holman Hunt's time, there was a reaction to the intense, naive religious beliefs of previous centuries in the Victorian era in England. Science was just coming into its own. New inventions, and the discovery of electricity, and the whole industrialization of England had replaced the more bucolic atmosphere with one of moving forward, rationalism, all-conquering science.

So Holman Hunt's predilection for medieval art, his pre-Raphaelite style, was going very much against the grain of the times he lived in.

Holman Hunt The Hireling Shepherd
Holman Hunt The Hireling Shepherd

So Holman Hunt started the pre-Raphaelite school of art in 1848, after meeting Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Holman Hunt's artwork was much criticized by the critics, initially. It was deemed "ugly", or "clumsy", or, "naive" (as it was intended to be naive work, I wonder if Holman Hunt was actually too upset by that label!).

He chose religious subjects. He chose pastoral subjects, and his work was definitely reminiscent of the medival period in art. Holman Hunt was perceived to be a reactionary, a throw-back as an artist.

What Holman Hunt was after, and why his work has survived and has so much power that we can still percieve it today, is to inspire a deep religious feeling in his viewers. He looked to reform and revitalize art from the still, dead thing it became during the more rational times he lived in. He wanted to arose feelings in his viewers. He wanted his viewers to see his paintings, and believe once again.

Holman Hunt The Shadow of Death
Holman Hunt The Shadow of Death
Holman Hunt The Awakening of Conscience
Holman Hunt The Awakening of Conscience

Holman Hunt's two most powerful pictures, to my mind, are "The Awakening of Conscience" and "The Shadow of Death".

In "The Shadow of Death", Holman Hunt depicts Jesus in his carpenter's workshop, with his arms raised in the crucifixion pose. It is one of the most powerful, one of the most religiously thrilling, pictures I have ever seen. You can see the prescient awareness on Jesus's face of his fate, and his loving acceptance of that fate, for the benefit of us all.

In "The Awakening Conscience", we can see the woman starting off the lap of the man, who appears to be a heartless roue, by the sly, loose expression on his face. We can see the woman realize what is about to happen, and that it's wrong. This one picture is so redolant of illicit sex; it's amazing to me--all the people still have their clothes on! How Holman Hunt managed to capture the illicit nature of the rendezvous at the piano without a word spoken! That is a big part of Holman Hunt's genius, to my mind. His pictures tell a story, vividly.

Holman Hunt The Scapegoat
Holman Hunt The Scapegoat

Holman Hunt's religious paintings eventually made him famous. In the mid-1850's, William Holman Hunt travelled to the Holy Land to get authentic landscapes for his religious work. He painted "The Shadow of Death" there, and, "The Scapegoat"; also, "The Light of the World", which now hangs in the chapel at Keble College, Oxford. Holman Hunt eventually built his own house in Jerusalem.

Holman Hunt, when he planned his journey to the Palestine, wrote:

"I need to prove, so far as my painting can, that Christianity is a living faith; the fullest realization of its wondrous story cannot unspiritualize it."

Holman Hunt was also a product of his time. In his foreign travels, he retained certain quintessentially British attitudes towards the native populations: he felt superior to the native inhabitants he encountered, particularly Jews and Arabs.

You can certainly see this in his painting "The Scapegoat".

Holman Hunt chose on of his very few old Testament subjects. He made the goat weak, and shaky in the knees. He littered the backdrop with the bones of its predecessors.

It's a very powerful image of the creature in its final throes; the dying remainder of a species on the verge of extinction, in punishment for its sins.

Threatened by the hostile native peoples and several natural calamities, Holman Hunt and his servants had immense difficulties posing this white goat on the saline plain. This goat, intended to represent the ancient story of the goat driven from the temple on the Jewish Day of Atonement, bearing the sins of the community, also represents the imperialistic attitude of British people at that time: the British prevail and the indigenous peoples are the scapegoats of an imperialistic society.

Holman Hunt Self-Portrait
Holman Hunt Self-Portrait
Holman Hunt Schoolgirl's Hymn
Holman Hunt Schoolgirl's Hymn

Holman Hunt was married twice: the first time to Fanny Waugh, who modelled for the figure of Isabella. She died in childbirth, in Italy. Holman Hunt loved her sincerely. He sculpted her tomb and had it brought to the English cemetery, where it lies beside the tomb of Elizabeth Barret Browning.

The second time Holman Hunt married, it was to Fanny's sister, Edith. This was illegal in England at the time, for a widower to marry his wife's sister, so Holman Hunt and Edith got married abroad.

This second marriage was somewhat of a scandal of the day, and also cost him a few friends. I'm not sure why. We wouldn't look at it the same way, today.

Holman Hunt's eyesight eventually failed him. He had to give up painting, towards the end of his life. His last painting was "The Lady of Shalott", which was completed by his assistant, Edward Robert Hughes.

William Holman Hunt died on September 7, 1910, in Kensington, London, at the age of 83.

His work lives on. His style remains alive over time; like much pre-Raphaelite art, the vivid colors and graphic subjects have lasting appeal and fame.


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    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thanks for the comment, Natashalh. I love this artist. His work speaks to me. You're welcome for anything about him I'm able to share.

    • Natashalh profile image


      6 years ago from Hawaii

      I don't care what the establishment said then, I love Pre-Raphaelite art. However, I did not know about Holman Hunt. Thanks for the in-depth info.

    • Amanda Severn profile image

      Amanda Severn 

      7 years ago from UK

      Holman Hunt was quite an intriguing character. He liked his paintings to tell stories, and he particularly liked to convey a moral message through his art. He and Rosetti must had some interesting conversations, especially as they were so completely different in their attitudes towards morality and religion. Of the three original Pre-Raphaelites I like Holman Hunt's work the least, but even so, he is still a fabulous artist. Good to see his work here on HubPages.

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 

      7 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi :)

      Yes, that's right, the original one :) :)

    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thanks, Trish. Yes, "The Light of the World" is a truly inspiring painting. I'm so glad you actually saw it in person.

      That's Birmingham in England, not Birmingham in Alabama, USA, right?

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 

      7 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi :)

      Beautiful artwork.

      Holman Hunt's 3rd version of 'The Light of the World' is in St Paul's cathedral. When I saw it, I thought that it was absolutely beautiful.

      There are a lot of Pre-Raphaelite paintings in Birmingham Art Gallery.

    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thank you, Pintoman. I really like this painter, I guess you can tell!

    • Pintoman profile image


      7 years ago

      I am a sculptor, and though I like to write, I hate writing about art. This article was beautiful.

    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thank you both for the comments. I should have also included the painting of Jesus called "The Light of the World". You can find copies on Bing of this image, if you want to, sofs. You'd like that painting, a lot, also.

    • sofs profile image


      7 years ago

      Wow, I always learn something new from your hubs, this was no exception. Your choice of paintings is awesome, loved the Jesus at his carpenter workshop :) Thank you for sharing :)

    • jrsearam profile image


      7 years ago from San Juan, PR

      Thank you for the introduction to Hunt. I love the light in his paintings...and the eyes of his subjects all seem very similar. I wonder if it was a conscious choice. Beautiful hub Paradise, up/beautiful....JR

    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thank you, scarytaff. One of my favorite painters. You can see why I like it so much.

      It's always a bit funny, doing a hub on a painter. The ones I really like, well, the pictures speak for themselves. My writing is sort of redundant, at least to my mind.

    • scarytaff profile image

      Derek James 

      7 years ago from South Wales

      Marvellous , No.7 Excellent work. What wonderful paintings he did. Great hub.


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