Your personal tour of a Pre-Raphaelite painting

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The Minneapolis Insitute of Arts new exhibition “Sin and Salvation: William Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite Vision” opens this Sunday. While many people are drawn to pre-raphaelite paintings for their fair skinned beauties and Shakespearean settings, at the heart of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood was a moral narrative. According to MIA curator Patrick Noon, who was kind enough to give me a sneak peek of the exhibition, it was William Holman Hunt who stayed true to that moral vision more than any other of his peers.

Let’s take Holman Hunt’s classic work “The Awakening Conscience” (shown above). What’s your first impression? We see a woman who’s stood up from the lap of her suitor, and is looking out an open window – we can see the window in the reflection of the mirror behind her. But what else can we figure out about this story by looking closely at the image?

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The biggest clue comes from looking at her hands. You’ll notice that the young lady has rings on all of her fingers except one – her RING finger. That’s right – she’s single, and sitting in the lap of a young gentleman! Not only that, but the garment she’s wearing is a sleeping gown. So we now know that this young woman is actually the man’s mistress, not a young maiden he’s courting for marriage.

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Secondly, we’re given some symbolism in the painting as well. Note the cat that’s toying with a little bird. The cat’s been distracted by something (probably the young woman standing up so abruptly), and the bird has a chance to escape. The position of the bird and the cat mirrors the position of the young man and his mistress. In essence, he’s a cat toying with his prey, but she may have some hope of escaping him.

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Finally, what’s at the center of this painting? It’s not the young woman’s face, it’s the view out the window – a view of natural beauty that makes the small apartment feel claustrophobic in comparison. In Pre-Raphaelite paintings, nature was often seen as a symbol of morality and truth. The natural world, in all its splendor, is calling to the young woman with an offer of redemption. Thus, the title: The Awakening Conscience.

There are plenty more symbols throughout the piece underscoring the main theme. And just as interesting as what’s on the canvas is the story behind the painting. The model for the image of the young lady was actually Holman Hunt’s own mistress, Annie Miller. Holman Hunt was hoping to convince Miller to leave behind her life as a mistress, and reform herself into a good woman of society he could marry with dignity. She didn’t take to his idea of a good wife however, and they eventually broke up.

Image courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

  • russell

    Although I am not educatd in art I believe john william waterhouses paintings are a better example of pre-raphaelite work, however I really like the work of j.w.godward. I would like to see a tour of the tambourine girl.

  • Marianne Combs

    Russell, thanks for your comment! When I was talking to MIA curator Patrick Noon, he mentioned that while the pre-raphaelite movement was based in a moral narrative, many of its painters (Waterhouse included) eventually went on to paint what’s known in the art world as “stunners” – simply gorgeous portraits, that aren’t filled with the symbolism and subtext of earlier pre-raphaelite work. These are the works that many people associate with the pre-raphaelite movement today, and they are incredibly beautiful. I think “The Tambouring Girl” by John William Waterhouse probably falls into that category.

  • Christine

    I like rich, otherwordly colours in this beautiful painting.