Lessons learned, history remade; Pre-Raphaelites sought to clean up the art world
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 17 February 2009)

In the year 2009 the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood look like brothers from another planet and look especially exotic when installed in that temple of 21st-century design, the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. Sin and Salvation: Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite Vision, organized by Katharine Lochnan, turns out to be a magnificent curiosity, an exhibition of art that once created a sensation around the English-speaking world but now needs to be rescued, once or twice a generation, from the mists of memory.

In 1848 in London, William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais pulled together a new gang, seven artists, for all the usual reasons. They were adventurous young painters, world-beaters in their minds and stars of the future, anxious for attention. Collectively, their arrangement was a great success. After what the superb AGO catalogue calls five years of "creativity and celebrity," they all moved on to individual careers, burnished by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood reputation.

The name they chose expressed their admiration for the intensity and directness of medieval painting. Renaissance art, like Raphael's, looked to them overly rational and sophisticated; worse, by the 1850s it had hardened into a series of Old Master conventions. Reaching back to the world before the Renaissance was a way of removing the detritus of the recent past so that they could take their own place in history. The word "brotherhood" had a revolutionary sound and linked them to the ancient craft guilds.

In the PRB world the col-ours are vividly romantic, the themes deadly earnest, the painted scenes carefully staged and often filled with Middle Eastern atmosphere. The painters were distinctively English, often influenced by English poetry, but they painted faraway worlds. Glowing texture, in dresses, jackets and draperies, is a major element in PRB paintings. Hunt enjoyed wearing floor-length caftans and kept a few of them in his studio for use by his models. The AGO show includes examples.

Call me a neo-Victorian, but I've always been drawn to the PRB (though admittedly not often). There's an urgency behind their work you can't help but enjoy, combined with full-bore flamboyance.

The PRB were both literary and literal -- they drew inspiration from literature and when they delivered a message it was unmistakably plain. If they had a point to make, the Pre-Raphaelites nailed it.

Hunt's The Scapegoat, for instance, shows a sad, bedraggled goat, thrust out of Jerusalem to carry the sins of the people, now apparently sinking into the salt marshland at the edge of the Dead Sea. But stop: There's cause for optimism. A rainbow appears above the goat, a message of redemption.

When Hunt wanted to show Christianity illuminating the sinful darkness of the world, he pictured Jesus literally holding a lantern while arriving at someone's cottage in The Light of the World (1853-54). That became by far his most celebrated work, reproduced by Hunt in several versions and by others hundreds of times, occasionally as a stained-glass church window. It toured much of the English-speaking world, including Canada. The actual lantern Hunt used as his model is in the AGO show (which runs till May 10).

The Awakening Conscience, painted by Hunt in 1853-54, embodies both literary and literal qualities. It's about a fallen woman, which in the 1850s meant a woman who had sex outside of marriage. Among the Victorians, fallen women were a major social evil and above all a source of morbid fascination. It was as if the skies over England were constantly filled with women crashing down from a great height, endangering the population.

Hunt conceived The Awakening Conscience as a companion piece to The Light of the World, both of them showing moments of revelation. Just as Jesus brings light in one painting, the light of conscience dawns inside the sensibility of a young woman in the other. Hunt was inspired partly by Ruth, an Elizabeth Gaskell novel about a woman, seduced and abandoned, who is expected to feel guilty for entrapping a young man into vice. She gets a letter from her lover's mother, reporting that he is now "happily conscious" of their joint sin. The mother recommends repentance and forwards a goodbye gift of 50.

The Awakening Conscience depicts a fallen woman who abruptly recognizes her condition and hopes to rejoin the party of the virtuous. As his model Hunt chose a woman from a poor background who was used in several PRB paintings. Hunt's relationship with her was ambiguous. In 1853 he paid for her schooling and lodgings, in hopes that she would become an acceptable wife for him. That plan was abandoned, but years later he continued to play a protective, advisory role in her life. At least, that's the story.

The painting shows a woman rising from a man's lap in his office, her gaze looking upward as if in response to some celestial inspiration. It's a story picture, an illustration intended to evoke pious thought.

Exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1854, it made critics uncomfortable. It was too realistic, too frank, too modern. But John Ruskin, the leading contemporary critic, wrote to The Times that it was socially beneficial because it confronted "the moral evil of the age," unmarried love. It treated the erring woman with compassion and was obviously painted to awaken "the cruel thoughtlessness of youth." The reviewer for Punch praised Hunt's courageous decision to teach youth a terrible lesson.

Beginning in 1854, Hunt lived in Palestine for three periods, six and a half years in all. He was there first of all as a Christian painter with a highly personal relationship to Christ; he was an Anglican who considered himself an independent thinker on theological issues. In the Holy Land he embraced the idea that the Jews of the world should return home; as anti-Semitism rose in Russia and elsewhere, he argued that European governments should acquire the necessary land from the Ottoman Empire. (He seems to have regarded the Arabs as transients who would gladly step aside.)

In 1896 Hunt met Theodor Herzl, the journalist who founded political Zionism, and proved himself more royalist than the king by pressing Herzl to make even more assertive claims to a Jewish homeland. Hunt was a large spirit, a man of Victorian dimensions, his mind at least as interesting as his art.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image