Hunt's Two Battles

William Holman Hunt characteristically based his conceptions of realism and painterly symbolism upon his religious belief. As he explained to William Bell Scott in a letter of August 10, 1870 he sent from Jerusalem, he had arrived at his conclusions only after careful

consideration of the two views (religion or no religion) on life. What is the reason of the dead-alive poetry and art of the day, if not in the totally material nature of the views cultivated in modern schools? Trying to limit speculation within the bounds of sense only must produce poor sculpture, feeble painting, dilettante poetry. [Autobiographical Notes, II, 95]

He believed that without faith, art becomes materialistic, empty, literal, and dead, because such unspiritualized art can only present facts for their own sake. This dread of meaningless fact explains how Hunt, who painted in such a supposedly realistic style, could emphasize in Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood that he and Millais always thought art had to express feelings and thus could never be "the icy double of facts themselves." He emphasizes "we were never realists," for he and Millais — much less Rossetti — were never interested in making "a representation, elaborate or unelaborate, of a fact in nature" for its own sake, because to do so would destroy the imagination, that "faculty" which makes man "like a God." According to Hunt, "a mere imitator," who does not make use of his imagination, necessarily "comes to see nature claylike and finite, as it seems when illness brings a cloud before the eyes" (I.150).

Thus Hunt was fighting two different, though related battles: on one front he fought to popularize a realistic style of painting that could more effectively render both secular and scriptural subjects; on the other, he struggled to find a means of keeping that carefully represented accumulation of facts from becoming a mere scientific record. By 1856 one part of the struggle, the easiest, had clearly been won, for by then "many followers were admired chiefly for mechanical skill, and in some cases this was of a very complete kind, although wanting in imaginative strain. An increasing number of the public approved our methods, perhaps the more readily when no poetic fancy complicated the claim made by the works" (II.89). The reviewers agreed, for as the Art-Journal put it a few years later, "the precisians are 'masters of the situation.'" (21 [1859], 161). But Hunt's concomitant aim of spiritualizing art never met with the same success, and, indeed, one suspects that many of his Victorian contemporaries never realized he had this second goal in mind.

One means of preventing his art from presenting nature "claylike and finite" was to depict emotionally powerful scenes from literature and from sacred or secular history. From his earliest paintings Hunt sought to capture the drama intrinsic to climactic moments — whether conceived as theatrical scenes of encounter and recognition or those in which true spiritual illumination occurs. Thus, whereas Rienzi , The Awakening Conscience, The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, and even The Lady of Shalott portray such powerful moments of illumination or conversion, Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus and Claudio and Isabella depict more conventionally theatrical subjects. A second, less accessible, means of surmounting the problems of visual realism was to present landscapes and events that were charged with imaginative power, and his entire program of recording scenes in the Middle East exemplifies this part of his enterprise. A third, more complex means was to employ elaborate forms of symbolism, or as a contemporary critic put it in a phrase already quoted: "The attempt . . . is to elevate materialism by mysticism, and to make even the accessories of an inanimate realism instinct with spiritual symbolism."

Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood relates that when he was at work on the Christ and the Two Marys in 1847, he had tried to find a symbolical language to replace that of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. He had complained to Millais of his difficulties, pointing out that the "language" of the earlier masters "was then a living one, now it is dead," and therefore to repeat either their iconography or compositions "for subjects of sacred or historic import is mere affectation." He went on to explain to his friend that in his picture of the risen Lord, earlier artists would have put "a flag in His hands to represent His victory over Death: their public had been taught that this adjunct was a part of the alphabet of their faith." But by the middle of the nineteenth century, that language of faith, like the faith itself, had largely disappeared; and although the "art-galvanising revivalists" would certainly approve of his making use of such an older, once hallowed convention, such painterly symbolism would be little more than a self-conscious use of the conventions of a past age. In contrast, Hunt wanted a symbolism that could speak to the nineteenth century (I.84-85).

Created December 2001. Last modified 27 October 2020