William Holman Hunt

The English painter William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) was one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the only one to remain faithful to its precepts throughout his life.

William Holman Hunt was born in London. His father, a warehouse manager, reluctantly allowed him to enter the Royal Academy schools in 1844, where he met John Everett Millais. Profoundly influenced by his discovery of John Keats and his reading of John Ruskin's Modern Painters in 1847, Hunt developed a new approach to painting which involved the expression of significant moral ideas in a completely natural manner. To this end he evolved an intensely realistic technique, using brilliant, clear colors on a white ground instead of the traditional dark underpainting. These new ideas are embodied in his illustration inspired by Keats's The Eve of St. Agnes.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Hunt, and Millais founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Despite Ruskin's defense of the brotherhood in the Times, the hostile reception of Hunt's paintings in the academy, for example, Christians Sheltering a Priest from the Druids (1850), almost caused him to abandon painting. However, with Ruskin's praise for the Light of the World and the Awakening Conscience (1853), Hunt began to gain recognition, and he turned almost exclusively to the portrayal of religious themes.

Hunt was passionately determined to ensure absolute truth to nature in the rendering of his subjects. He painted most of the Light of the World outside by moonlight, and the Scapegoat (1854) was painted beside the Dead Sea on the first of Hunt's many journeys to the Holy Land in search of authentic settings for his biblical scenes.

In 1865 Hunt married Fanny Waugh; within a year, after the birth of their son, she died. In 1873 he married Edith Waugh. After about 1860 Hunt was acknowledged as a leading English painter, but he became increasingly isolated from contemporary trends by his long absences abroad and his continuing adherence to the ideals and realistic technique of the Pre-Raphaelite style. Following Rossetti's death (1882), Hunt began a vigorous defense of these ideals and of his role in their formation with a series of articles which culminated in his remarkable autobiography (1905-1906).

Although Hunt was obsessed throughout his life with light and its effect on color, his popularity was to a large extent founded on his vivid religious imagery, which received wide circulation in the form of engravings. The Miracle of the Sacred Fire (1899), painted in Jerusalem, shows the same scrupulous attention to minute detail which may have caused his eyesight to fail in the last years.

Hunt was awarded the Order of Merit in 1905, and his importance was recognized in a series of major exhibitions. He died on Sept. 7, 1910.

Further Reading on William Holman Hunt

The most important book on Hunt is his autobiography, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (2 vols., 1905-1906; 2d ed. rev. 1914). Fascinating sidelights on his character are in Diana Holman-Hunt, My Grandmothers and I (1960). Background on the period is provided in Robin Ironside, Pre-Raphaelite Painters (1948), and Graham Reynolds, Victorian Painting (1966).

Additional Biography Sources

Amor, Anne Clark, William Holman Hunt: the true Pre-Raphaelite, London: Constable, 1989.