Monday, April 20, 2009


I saw this image in the AGO on Sunday: William Holman Hunt's The Awakening Conscience. It's a very famous painting from the Pre-Raphaelites.
The group challenged the artistic, political, social and religious values of the time. Taking subjects from history, literature and modern life, Hunt addressed gender relations, the crisis of faith and problems in the Middle East – difficult issues which have resonance for us today. The exhibition brings together more than 60 works, including Hunt's most famous paintings, The Awakening Conscience, The Light of the World and Isabella and the Pot of Basil. Also on view are costumes from the artist's studio, works on paper and historical documents. (source)

The story is that this "wayward" woman sitting on this dude's lap suddenly realized the error of her slutty ways while singing a sentimental song about the innocence of childhood. There are various cues to read that from the painting--for instance the clock in the painting is decorated with a depiction of "chastity binding cupid." Also note that she is wearing a ring on every finger except where a wedding ring would be.

Part of the backstory is that Hunt had a relationship with the woman he used as a model, and had hoped to convert her to faith. When the painting was originally exhibited it shocked victorian sensibilities (which is not hard to do) and the first owner convinced Hunt to "soften" the woman's expression--a work the painter was unable to complete before his death. The painting is ripe for analysis on many levels. For instance, while it seems to focus on the woman's sin in this relationship without necessarily giving any responsibility to the man, I think the focus on the woman's agency is important. We are invited to enter into her subjectivity, I think, and that's a good thing.

One writer commented that the picture can be read as a response to the even more famous The Light of the World. In other words, this the human response to Christ knocking on the soul's door. Pretty cool.


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