Wednesday, April 2, 2008

This Little Light of Mine

When William Holman Hunt founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848 with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais, he probably saw it as a union of equals. Born April 2, 1827, Hunt couldn’t have guessed that the poet-painter Rossetti and the more talented and versatile Millais would eventually overshadow him, almost to the point of erasing him from the history of the Pre-Raphaelites founding. During the Victorian Era, however, Hunt found his proper audience in almost cloyingly religious works such as The Light of the World (above, from 1854). The Light of the World toured extensively during Hunt’s lifetime thanks to the piety of the age. From my perspective, it appears too Thomas Kinkaid-ish in its obvious tugging on the heartstrings. Perhaps our Kinkaid-friendly times will rediscover this side of Hunt, but I think he has much more to offer.

In The Shadow of Death (above, from 1871), Hunt employs the almost photographic realism of Millais along with a symbolism that seems downright Medieval—the main goal of the brotherhood as it tried to turn back the clock to before the Renaissance and Raphael. Hunt paints the adult Jesus stretching in the carpentry shop of his father Joseph, casting a shadow on the wall that prefigures the crucifixion. A woman kneeling near Jesus’ feet sees the shadow on the wall and recoils in horror, seeing her son’s fate literally written on the wall. Where The Light of the World bashes you with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, The Shadow of Death strikes a message with nuance, forcing you to tease out the meaning of the picture and mentally enter into it.

Hunt took his mania for exact detail to the point that he traveled to the Holy Land just to research such works as The Shadow of Death and The Scapegoat (above, from 1856). The Scapegoat is as simple a religious image as you can find without depicting a human face, but the handling of the landscape, especially the majestically purple mountains in the distance, makes this more than just a devotional exercise. Like any good Pre-Raphaelite, Hunt led a colorful life, particularly when he tried to marry his widow’s sister, which was then illegal in England, and left the country to do so. That intrigue doesn’t stand up to the soap operas of Rossetti’s and Millais’ lives, but it does show that Hunt was not a simple follower of social mores. Hunt wrote a memoir near the end of his life giving his side of the story of the origin of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, hoping to rewrite the histories that gave him lesser credit than Rossetti and Millais. In many ways, the success of Hunt most obvious religious works made him a convenient scapegoat for critics hoping to steer public tastes away from such blatant emotional appeals. Sadly, they never looked beyond those showstoppers to see Hunt’s nuanced works lurking in the shadows.

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