Although William Holman Hunt supported the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood's objective of representing nature in the most realistic manner possible, he was not satisfied when works of art achieved only that purpose. Hunt believed that the expression of emotion was equally necessary — he warned that any artist without this second intention "comes to see nature claylike and finite, as it seems when illness brings a cloud before the eyes". Hunt evaded this danger in his own art by illustrating emotionally arousing moments from religion, history, and literature, as shown in his painting The Lady of Shalott.
Hunt based the painting on his earlier illustration of the famous Tennyson poem, in which the cursed Lady of Shalott, forbidden even the briefest glance out of her window, sees Sir Lancelot's reflection in her mirror and turns to look at him — and thus, she is doomed to death. Hunt's painting illustrates the fateful moment the Lady of Shalott looks out the window. Her hair blows wildly about her, and her body is entangled in the threads of her tapestry — the physical disarray of the scene fits the emotional turmoil of the moment.
1. Hunt captures vivid emotion in this painting, but does he achieve a realistic representation of nature? Study the Lady of Shalott's hair, for example. Hunt draped his model's hair over an easel to attain this appearance — does it look natural? What about the rest of the painting?
2. Hunt intended this painting to portray a tension between good and evil. How does he use shadow and light to achieve this?
3. In the background, there are two opposing images: on the left, there is an image of the Virgin and Child, and on the right, there is an image of Hercules taking the golden apples of Hesperides. What is the significance of these images, and how do they (and other objects in the painting) relate to Hunt's theories about symbolism in art?
4. How might the Lady of Shalott serve as an artist figure? What statement might Hunt be making?
5. How do the vibrancy of the painting's colors and the Lady of Shalott's physical appearance and posture relate to her situation of confinement?
Last modified 29 September 2006