Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt

First of all, I've been a little neglectful of this blog over the last week! I just started a new job and I've been quite busy. I have a hard time writing when I don't have the time to be inspired, but I suppose that's something I'll just have to work on!

Speaking of "uninspired," I must confess that this William Holman Hunt's "The Awakening Conscience" is probably my least favourite Pre-Raphaelite painting. By far. I've always found it incredibly ugly, since the first time I saw it. That being said, I must confess that it's a very visually arresting work.

The technicolor color scheme is jarring to the senses, like many of Hunt's pieces. The subject itself seems rather tawdry, even today! I also can't help but think that the image of the fallen woman seems hoplessly Victorian. Apparently, the work was inspired by a "fallen woman" that Hunt had attempted to guide toward the straight and narrow (unsuccessfully).

While doing a little reading about the painting in Tim Barringer's The Pre-Raphaelites, I came across a copy of the song that is on the young woman's piano. You can see the title, "Oft in the Stilly Night" on the music. I thought the words were rather interesting, and seem to add an extra element to the painting that made me appreciate it a little bit more.

Oft, in the stilly night,
Ere Slumber's chain has bound me,
Fond Memory brings the light
Of other days around me;
The smiles, the tears,
Of boyhood's years,
The words of love then spoken;
The eyes that shone,
Now dimm'd and gone,
The cheerful hearts now broken!
Thus, in the stilly night,
Ere Slumber's chain hath bound me,
Sad Memory brings the light
Of other days around me.

Do any of you like this painting? I'd be really interested to hear what others have to say about it.


Pamela Terry and Edward said...

So funny, but like you I've never particulary liked this one. For me it's something about their faces that I find unpleasant. And, the cowering cat has bothered me as well. Amazing that you found the song lyric. That does add another dimension to the work. But it's still pretty low on my favorites list, I'm afraid.

I hope you are enjoying your new job! Edward and I wish you a happy, restful weekend!

willow said...

I totally agree! Very ugly. She is squatting there with her rear in the guy's face, practically. Something about her position looks wrong. He is singing and playing the piano with his left hand. I always thought he to be the voice teacher and she the student. And I hate her blank expression. Okay, I'm finished trashing poor Hunt's painting.

Margaret said...

I'm so glad that at least two other people agree with me!

Pamela--I'm with you 100 percent--they really do have unpleasant faces, which is strange, because many of Hunt's paintings feature such lovely women. The cat is a little weird as well.

Willow--She definitely has a blank expression! I always thought that was a bit odd, since the title of the painting is "Awakening Conscience", you would think that her expression would be a bit more remarkable (like SOMETHING was awake). Instead she looks a little--I hate to say this--stupid. I think it's interesting you think he's the voice teacher. According to Barringer, they're in a house of ill repute or some such (because of the tawdry decor), but I think the voice teacher idea makes just as much sense!

skatej said...

I've never felt right about this painting. Something about the way the lines are of it seem "outlined" like they were images in a coloring book the artist filled in. The faces of the characters are sallow and nearly gaunt, and though it may mean to show a sudden realization of morals, but the circumstances in which she is positioned seem to say that she has no hope of acting upon her newly found moral compass. I agree with the above poster who hates the cat in the corner. He seems to know as well that no good will come of this. Overall it's both a tawdry and hopeless painting, and not something I really think should be admired, apart for perhaps of course the detail in textiles.

Gillian L. said...

I don't care for this painting either. To me the two people and the cat all seem at odds with each other. The man looks like he is somehow being manipulative, the women looks like she is distracted and uninterested and the cat seems very disturbed by the whole situation. It leaves me with a general feeling of dishonesty somehow.


susan benford said...

Knowing the lyrics helps in appreciating this painting, but i find it overly moralistic: the cat, as predator, toying with the bird; the clock minutes from high noon, a decisive hour; a passage from Proverbs on the bottom of the frame, and so on.

And then with the garish color... it's not a favorite of mine, either!

cecilia said...

the painting was reworked up, as I remember correctly. Hunt repainted the woman's face after he broke the relationship with the original model. Maybe here is the explanation of the fact many of you don't like the painting.

Margaret said...

It's interesting how most of us have a very similar reaction to the painting. I'm getting the feeling that Hunt wanted us to have that sort of a reaction. It's interesting what you say, Cecilia, about the model's face, although I think my dislike of the painting isn't tied solely to the face of the model.

acornmoon said...

There is one thing that I like about the painting, it's the way he uses the mirror to add dimension to the painting, I like the way you can look through the room via the mirror, it creates a sort of echo in the composition.

Dare I say the woman looks like the artist? again!

Good luck with your new job.

Tracy said...

This is interesting! The subject matter of the painting and how it's executes leaves a lot to be desired...There's just too much going on in this picture...And what I dislike mostly also, are the faces, and stiff strange postition of the "fallen woman". That said though, I have to say this picture has some sentiment for me personally, though it is not one of my favorite of Hunt's works, as this was one of the first PRB works I ever say in a book of art through the ages when I was in my early teen. I captured my interest in the PRB and Victorian arts in general. So I may look at it and wince...but it gave me a real start in my art education!

Best wishes on your new job, Margaret...what are you doing now?


Scheharazade said...

I love the Pre-Raphaƫlites Art !^-^

lotusgreen said...

i like this painting, the decorativeness. and yet i see i've been seeing it all wrong! i thought she'd had a shocked but not altogether unpleasent reaction when he'd grabbed her ass, but now i see she's "gotten the god light."

boba said...

I'm not much of a painting guy but this is at least an interesting painting. I always look at gesture, posture and activity - I'm a bit of a Freudian in that respect. The male figures hands are:
left one playing the piano (gee what does that mean),
right one making a gesture that implies "what did I do" or "you're welcome to..."
His posture is nearly prone - a bit difficult to play the piano from that seat.
Her gestures, the clasped hands and extended arms suggest anxiety (go figure). The posture of being perpendicular to the other one tells it all.
You must admit though, that's some beautiful furniture and other furnishings. The wages of sin must be very good if one can afford those digs.

Judy said...

If you think this painting is ugly try "Found" by Rossetti! So dreadful that DGR never could never finish it! I happened to write my M.A. thesis on that work so even though I didn't enjoy it from an aesthetic point of view I enjoyed learning about the Victorian demi-monde that the PRB inhabited. And about the theme of the fallen women in art and literature.

It IS interesting that most of the PRs did a fallen woman painting at one time or other, didn't they? They had very conflicted ideas about Victorian womanhood.

Contemporary historical novels such as"The French Lieutenant's Woman" tread this territory of the moral dichotomies in Victorian society rather well. So does Michel Faber's brilliant "Crimson Petal and the White". Sarah Waters also has done some excellent novels on the seamier side of Victorian life. Actually now that I think of it exposing the dark underbelly of Victorian life has almost become a genre in and of itself. But I digress. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

i don't understand why everyone is so un-appreciative of this painting? the attention to detail and use of symbolism is amazing. also, the vivid colours and clean lines are in direct contrast to the wishy-washy standardized form of the artists who followed the royal acadamy. holman hunt and the other pre-raphaelites changed the face of at forever in just a few short years. they insisted on painting from life models rather than using set face shapes, giving their paintings a more natural realism than other artists. they also used their work to confront issues in society; such as the increase in 'kept' women like the one pictured here. almost all the objects in this painting enhance the message hunt is trying to put forward. the luxurious surroundings show her position as a kept woman and various items represent her moral downfall. however, the womans expresssion, her rising from the mans lap, and the light from the window reflected in the mirror show this to be a moment of realization where the woman makes a resolution to correct her moral wrong. the composition is purposefully related to the arnolfini portrait which is a representation of what was considered the proper relationship between a man and a woman; in sharp contrast to this scene. the bright colours and the womans expression capture your attention and then all the little beautifully captured details and symbolism keep you looking and finding new things.

- abi. illustration BA student.

Anonymous said...

p.s; and yes, hunt did repaint the woman's face. the man who bought the painting thought the original face to be too disturbing. i would have liked to see the painting as hunt had intended it to be; with the proper emotion shown in the woman's face.


Anonymous said...

re the Pre-Raphaelites obsession with the number 7.

In Biblical numerology -It is often called “God’s number” since He is the only One who is perfect and complete. Spiritual perfection.

Methinks they thought they were the chosen ones, divinely appointed to liven up the drab age in which they lived!