- William Holman Hunt
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William Holman Hunt

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." They are peculiar individuals to deal with in an art 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 "belaboured." But 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 co-ordination, 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, D.G. Rossetti, and William Holman Hunt formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

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. Any ambiguity in the painting was more that made up for in the title.

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 entitled The Awakening of Conscious. 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 into realising the error or 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, colours, and endlessly irritating attention to details. (He makes our Norman Rockwell look like an Impressionist.) But at the time, the painting underlined graphically a secret sexual double standard; provoking outrage, not at the institution of prostitution itself, but that Hunt had dared shed light upon it. Insofar as the male-dominated, English social hierarchy of the time was concerned, it was as if one of their own had suddenly turned upon them, stabbing them in the back with a paintbrush.

contributed by Lane, Jim

21 January 2000

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