Paradoxically, some of these things which make William Holman Hunt seem such an anachronism also make him seem modern. In the manner of many moderns - in the manner, say, of Joyce and Eliot — he tried by sheer force of will to re-vivify traditions. More important, like so many artists and writers of this century, William Holman Hunt was the man of an idea — the extremist who would make no compromise. Today, when sculptors send rough sketches to factories which then make "their" sculptures, the artistic program is often more important than the art itself. Indeed, when the extreme originality of an artist's idea counts for far more than his technique (which in Earth Art or random constructions may not even be present), then this earnest Victorian deserves attention — if only because of the lengths to which he was willing to push his demands. I do not suggest that we look carefully at his works solely because they unexpectedly anticipate some notions important to our own time — a study of his ideas alone would suffice for that - but it is nonetheless true that William Holman Hunt's attempts to plumb the limits of painting, strange as it may seem, take their place in the foundations of modern art.
The inspiration for his ambitious attempts to bridge realism and symbolism came directly from the second volume of Modern Painters (1846), specifically from a passage where Ruskin interprets typological symbolism in Tintoretto's Annunciation as an example of highly imaginative art. Describing The Annunciation in the Scuola di San Rocco series, Ruskin emphasizes how, 'startled by the rush" of angel wings,
the Virgin sits . . . houseless, under the shelter of a palace vestibule ruined and abandoned, with the noise of the axe and the hammer in her ears, and the tumult of a city round about her desolation. The spectator turns away at first, revolted, from the central object of the picture forced painfully and coarsely forward, a mass of shattered brickwork, with the plaster mildewed away from it, and the mortar mouldering from its seams; and if he looks again, either at this or at the carpenter's tools beneath it, will perhaps see . . . nothing more than such a study of scene as Tintoret could but too easily obtain among the ruins of his own Venice, chosen to give a coarse explanation of the calling and the condition of the husband of Mary.One's first impression, Ruskin thus emphasizes, is of a powerfully realistic depiction of a desolate scene in which the separate details force themselves upon the consciousness of the beholder in all their coarseness and brutality - mildewed plaster, rough brickwork, crumbling mortar. We have encountered, it would seem, little more than the painter's love of the picturesque. "But there is more meant than this," Ruskin warns us, for if the spectator examines the
composition of the picture, he will find the whole symmetry of it depending on a narrow line of light, the edge of a carpenter's square, which connects these unused tools with an object at the top of the brickwork, a white stone, four square, the corner-stone of the old edifice, the base of its supporting column. This, I think, sufficiently explains the typical [typological] character of the whole. The ruined house is the Jewish dispensation; that obscurely arising in the dawning of the sky is the Christian; but the corner-stone of the old building remains, though the builders" tools lie idle beside it, and the stone which the builders refused is become the Headstone of the Corner. [Works, 3.264-65]
The typological symbolism which Ruskin explained came as a revelation to Hunt, since it solved the artistic problems that had been troubling him. The symbolism, first of all, strikes the informed spectator as a natural language inherent in the visual details themselves and not as something laid upon the objects in some artificial manner. Indeed, as Ruskin pointed out, the first clue to the meaning of The Annunciation comes from its composition, which naturally and necessarily guides the eye to those details whose comprehension releases one into a world of religious vision. The second aspect of this kind of symbolism is that it spiritualizes the most brutal fact, allowing the painter to concentrate simultaneously upon painterly skills and his deeper message. Typology, in other words, would allow Hunt to reconcile his love of detailed realism with his need to make painting depict the unseen truths of the spirit.
The crucial importance that this section of Modern Painters had for him appears in the fact that he twice dwelt upon it at length in Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, once quoting it in its entirety. First, when setting forth the events which led up to the formation of the Brotherhood, he reconstructed a conversation with Millais, during the course of which he related his encounter with the second volume of Modern Painters. According to Hunt, he told Millais that he had recently "had great delight in skimming over a certain book, Modern Painters, by a writer calling himself an Oxford Graduate; it was lent to me only for a few hours, but, by Jove! passages in it made my heart thrill. He feels the power and responsibility of art more than any author I have ever read."Ruskin's descriptions of Venetian painting make you "see them with your inner sight, and you feel that the men who did them had been apointed by God, like old prophets, to bear a sacred message". He went on to tell his fellow student that Ruskin's readings of Tintoretto "make one see in the painter a sublime Hogarth. The Annunciation takes place in a ruined house, with walls tumbled down; the place in that condition stands as a symbol of the Jewish Church . . . and it suggests an appropriateness in Joseph's occupation of a carpenter, that at first one did not recognise; he is the new builder!" (I.90)
Hunt returned to Tintoretto's Annunciation, Ruskin's interpretation, and their effect upon his own conceptions of art when he recounted how he and Ruskin together visited the Scuola di San Rocco in 1869 [see note at left]. According to Hunt, the first picture they stood before was The Annunciation, and although he found the ruin and dilapidation greater than he had expected, "the image raised in my mind by the "Oxford Graduate," and retained ever since, was not so different from what I saw before me, as conjured-up scenes derived secondhand often prove to be at sight of the original" (II.260). More important, now that the painter finally had a chance to view the picture which had long had such a major, if indirect, influence upon his work, he was gratified to discover the validity of Ruskin's interpretation. After examining the painting in detail, he concluded: "there could be no doubt that Tintoretto had the purpose to suggest the desolation that had come upon the existing Israelitish Church, and its replacement by a new edifice" (II.260). Hunt then rather characteristically used this occasion of his first inspection of The Annunciation to set forth his own theories of art, and in so doing he joined his own cause with that of the great Venetian:
When language was not transcendental enough to complete the meaning of a revelation, symbols were relied upon for heavenly teaching, and familiar images, chosen from the known, were made to mirror the unknown spiritual truth. The forerunners and contemporaries of Tintoretto had consecrated the custom, to which he gave a larger value and more original meaning. How far such symbolism is warranted depends upon its unobtrusiveness and its restriction within limits not destroying natural beauty. There is no more reason why the features belonging to a picture should be distorted for the purpose of such imaginative suggestion than that the poet's metaphors should spoil his words for ordinary uses of man. Tintoretto's meaning was expressed with no arbitrary or unnatural disturbance of the truth. (II.260-1)
In concluding this defence of a combination of realism and an intricate symbolism, Hunt implicitly merged himself with his great predecessor: "I thought what happiness Tintoretto must have felt when he had this illuminating thought presented to him, and of his joy in carrying it out on canvas, and was wondering how few were the men who had pondered over the picture to read it thoroughly, until in fulness of time the decipherer came and made it clear" (II.261). Hunt sounds much as if he were writing of himself, for both when he imagines the joy of Tintoretto's moment of "illumination" and when he laments how few have truly appreciated its embodiment, his tone is reminiscent of his many letters describing the triumphs and trials of his own career. His use of the theological language of types and prophecies to praise Ruskin as that "decipherer" who came "in fulness of time" might also suggest how much of himself he included in this passage. Assuredly, Ruskin was the decipherer who came in the manner of John the Baptist to reveal the true meaning of old truths, but he also served to prepare for the culmination of these old truths in this case Hunt's own painting. It is difficult to determine to what extent Hunt intended such a parallel to be drawn, for when completed it becomes rather outrageous. Nonetheless, since both he and Ruskin believed artists at their best to be inspired prophets, neither would have found the general implications of such a suggestion disturbing.
Hunt goes on to relate how Ruskin, who had lost the religious belief which had originally founded his interpretation of The Annunciation now dwelt "more on the arrangement of lines in the design and the technique displayed in the handling, than on the mysteries that he had interpreted five-and-twenty years before" (II.261). This changed attitude led to a long discussion of the grounds for religious faith, but first Ruskin, who had not looked over his interpretation for many years, stood before The Annunciation and read it aloud. Hunt quotes the entire passage from the second volume of Modern Painters, adding: "The words brought back to my mind the little bedroom, twenty-two years since, wherein I sat till the early morning reading the same passage with marvel" (II.262).
Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood thus clearly testifies to the importance Ruskin's criticism had for Hunt's ideas of art, but in a letter he wrote to Ruskin more than a decade later, he explained the role it had had in his life as well. Before he encountered Ruskin's works he had been "a contemptuous unbeliever in any spiritual principles but the development of talent, and Shelley and Lord Byron with Keats were my best modern heroes — all read by the light of materialism — or sensualism". Then, a fellow student who was trying to convert him to Roman Catholicism lent him Modern Painters under the mistaken impression that its author belonged to this faith. "It was high time that I got something, and this something thus strangely gained was what first arrested me in my downward course. It was the voice of God. I read this in rapture and it sowed some seed of shame." If the painter's fervent language sounds much like that of an evangelical record of conversion, the resemblance is quite appropriate, for Hunt's words convey precisely the kind of response Ruskin had hoped to awaken in every young artist. Furthermore, as Hunt told him in a much-delayed letter [see note at left], like a true believer he had converted others to the truth:
All that the Preraphaelite Brotherhood had of Ruskinism came from this reading of mine. Rossetti was too absorbed with Dante and with French literature and still more, of course, English Romantic Rhyme to read what he decided to be too determinedly preaching, and Millais never read anything altho" he had a real genius in getting others to tell him the results of their reading and their thoughts thereon[.] I have never yet read any book with blind submission but these first books of yours which I met with were a real treasure, and all of your later books have been the more precious from my remembrance of the benefit which you conferred on me at first.
Hunt's outpourings reveal the central importance to his life and art of his encounter with Modern Painters, for it not only gave his painting new purpose and method but also led him towards the faith which they required. Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhoodmakes it clear that one of Ruskin's most important influences came in his explication of typological symbolism which reconciled realism with elaborate iconography. Hunt's letter emphasizes how serious, how essential, was the entire Ruskinian message to him at this point in his career.
Last modified December 2001