William Holman Hunt's The Awakening Conscience is one of the most famous depictions of a kept woman. Hunt often depicted highly charged emotional moments in order to prevent his photorealistic style from appearing finite or static. His paintings have a narrative quality intended to convey a moral or religious message. In this scene, Hunt illustrates the moment of moral conversion of the kept woman rising out of the lap of her lover. This intense moment of spiritual understanding and clarity is brought about by the beauty of nature outside the window seen in reflection in the mirror behind the woman.

William Holman Hunt places very deliberate clues in The Awakening Conscience in order to convey his moral message. The garish, bright patterns and colours of the space separate it from the accepted ideals of the modest Victorian home. The room can be read as the embodiment of the girl's morality. The disarray and lack of order, the objects scattered on the floor and the extreme clutter symbolize a moral confusion or dissension. Also, the rich fabrics, the fringe on her shawl symbolize an indulgent nature with a lack of modesty. More obvious symbols such as the cat and bird lend the reader to believe this woman to be of poor moral standing and also as a victim to her seducer. Hunt utilizes many of the techniques popularized by the PRB. The painting is evenly lit with equal attention paid to all areas of the painting. This gives the painting a cluttered almost unfocused quality which aids in the theme of moral dissension being depicted. The woman is bathed in natural light streaming in through the window. She sees herself and her situation in a new light and clarity. The dramatic illumination is both physical and spiritual. Nature inspires the woman with its beauty to free herself from the moral degradation and shame of being a kept woman.


1.What role does the gentleman play in the young girl's enlightenment or salvation?

2.How does Hunt address class or political implications in this study of morality? Examine the difference in their clothing. Also, remember that upper class women of the time would never have been painted in their bedclothes or in such a compromised position.

3.This picture seems to be a narrative about a fictional event. Aside from its moral preaching, can we view this painting as a work of social commentary? Can the PRB's works tell us anything about the make-up and functioning of its society?

4. How does the use of identifiable types (eg. the Dandy and the poor, kept woman) aid in Hunt's goal to preach morality? This piece was intended as a companion to Hunt's Light of the World. The two mirror each other in overall shape and also vibrancy of colour but show very different subjects. What other characteristics join or separate the two works?

Last modified 22 September 2004