Two versions of The Afterglow. Left: 1851-53. Oil on canvas, arched top, 29 ¼x 21 ⅝ inches, Tate Britain, London. Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported). Right: 1854-63. Oil on canvas, 73 x 34 inches. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, the University of Oxford. Bequeathed by Thomas Combe, 1893. This image can be used for non-commercial research or private study purposes under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
he larger version at Southampton differs considerably: instead of the calf, the girl is surrounded by birds, and instead of bearing a bird cage on her head she has a wheatsheaf. The girl’s blouse, which is simpler, matches the fabric on the rest of her dress, and the cow and farmer are missing.
ArtUK explains, “Financed by the sale of his paintings, Holman Hunt left England on 13 January 1854, hoping to rediscover the biblical lands in Egypt and Palestine. He wrote to Combe in 1854 that he had begun a life-sized study of an Egyptian girl, but that the trials of heat and dust and the difficulty of persuading the model to pose, caused him to abandon the painting. He returned to it back in England in 1861 (Southampton Art Gallery) and at the same time painted this smaller version.”
The Afterglow ironically embodies the difficulties the artist faced when trying to introduce his typological realism to an often uncomprehending audience. When explaining his approach to symbolic realism to the French critic Ernest Chesneau, who was preparing his book on English painting, he found himself frustrated when the critic, who was obviously accustomed to allegorical figures, insisted that the The Afterglow not only carried some deeper meaning but well represented the essence of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
The Henry E. Huntington library has five letters from William Holman Hunt to the French art critic Ernest Alfred Chesneau (1833-1890), which have particular interest because they contain the painter’s own views of the Pre- Raphaelite Brotherhood, and in addition Hunt lists artists who were his pupils — something particularly interesting because one doesn’t think of Hunt as an artist with a school or following.1 Chesneau, who was finishing up La Peinture Anglaise (1882 had written to Hunt both to secure permission to reproduce his works and for information about himself and his contemporaries. In 1884, two years after its French publication, Chesneau’s book appeared in England as The English School of Painting Lucy N. Etherington’s translation, accompanied by John Ruskin’s prefatory comments. Possibly because of the Ruskinian endorsement, Chesneau’s work became popular and influential. . . . By 1891 The English School of Painting had gone through four editions in England and several more in its original French version, so Hunt’s ideas and information had the opportunity to be widely disseminated.
The English School of Panting has the expected strengths and weaknesses of its foreign vantage point. It incisively describes English art. placing it the background of European traditions; and it frequently perceives relationships between individual painters not so noticeable closer to home. At the same time, it makes strange errors of interpretation, has difficulty distinguishing minor from major figures, and too often assumes the eternal validity of any rules adopted by the French. Since Chesneau placed such emphasis upon the Pre-Raphaelites, it is worthwhile quoting his introductory description of that group, in which in which Hunt played such an important role: The new school ascribed to art, in direct terms, a distinctly moral purpose,. Some of them thought to gain this object by representing, in as minute a subjects in historical art, possessing a most precise and accurate character. Others proposed to attain their end in landscape painting, by carrying our faithfully faithfully the smallest details, and most insignificant particulars of the spot in nature chosen by the artist.... By so strict a scrutiny the hope become closely united and incorporated with Truth, the beginning and end of all morality. 
Although he somewhat overemphasizes the role of truthful depiction of detail, Chesneau was one of the very few critics, contemporary or modern to realize that these details were recorded not in the spirit of science but to produce an emotional effect. According to him, the Pre-Raphaelites “adhere to the historical reality of events in order that they may interpret the letter and the spirit.... [and] in order... to awake, in spectator, the deep feelings which the sight of the facts they would have called forth (187). Chesneau, who has a good understanding of Ruskin’s critical principles, also perceives his relation to the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, neither overemphasizing nor denying his influence. Hunt, however, had one criticism of the critic’s comments about The Afterglow: “What you say of myself is I am sure most liberal. I however make one comment to the effect that I can’t see any kind of reason for regarding “The Afterglow in Egypt” as “mystical.” “The Light of the World” was necessarily typical because it was an abstract idea. The title of the other comes from my choice of the hour which seemed to me most picturesque for figure of girl, one of very many now seen in Fgypt with a singular resemblance to the old sculpturesque type. There is no kind or degree of in it.”
Links to Related Material
'As Unreserved as a Studio Chat': Holman Hunt's Letters to Ernest Chesneau." Huntington Library Quarterly, 38 (1975), 355--69.
Created 1 December 2001
Last modified 25 December 2021