William Holman Hunt - The Awakening Conscience

by Sarah Baur


Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt (1827 - 1919) was inspired by a verse from the Book of Proverbs (25.20) for his work The Awakening Conscience. This was also engraved on the picture frame: "As he that taketh away a garment in cold weather, so is he that singeth songs to a heavy heart."


What at first glance looks like the everyday life of a married couple within their four walls at home is actually based on a completely different subject. A closer look at the countless symbolic details found in the picture reveals a moral message about a social problem, which is echoed not least in Hunt's chosen frame quotation.


Here, the artist depicts the meeting between a man and his mistress in a specially designated space. For an authentic impression, Hunt rented a room in such a "maison de convenance" for this purpose. The room is (over)filled with shiny polished furniture and gilded decorative objects, pictures and various rich patterns on walls and ceilings, so that everything seems too cluttered. Just this gaudy and kitschy interior actually does not correspond to the ordinary Victorian family home and so the purpose of the room was therefore quickly apparent, especially for contemporaries.


In the center of the scene sits a young man at the piano, from whose lap a young blonde woman is just rising. The young woman's predicament and her mistress status can be interpreted in many symbolic ways: Her clasped hands are positioned in such a way as to make the viewer realize that she is wearing all sorts of rings, but not a wedding ring. In the shadows on the ground, a cat is playing with its prey - a bird with what appears to be a broken wing. On the right in the foreground the tangled threads of a picture knitting hang on the floor. Next to it, a carelessly thrown glove suggests that the young woman, too, may soon be dropped by her lover, and the hem of her bright dress may soon be soiled by the dirt of the street. On the other side on the floor is a sheet of music to Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Tears, Idle Tears," and on the piano is the sheet music to Thomas Moore's "Oft in the Stilly Night"-a sad song about missed opportunities.

Annie Miller, Hunt's girlfriend at the time and a popular model among the Pre-Raphaelites, modeled here for the mistress. With widened eyes, she looks straight ahead past the viewer and seems to have a spiritual epiphany. The fact that her gaze is directed through the open window into nature can be seen in the reflection behind her, with which Hunt transcends the pictorial space and thus expands the action space. The mirror becomes an image within the image that transcends transcendental reality. This kind of representation alone, which plays with the viewer's perception, arouses interest in the subject. The mistress seems to awaken at this moment and to regret the irreversible wrong decision to live this life. The reflection behind her could suggest her lost innocence and, in contrast, the incidence of light in the lower foreground of the picture could be a sign of possible redemption. The use of the mirror here thus also serves to convey ethical messages. By looking at the outside world, she comes to the inner realization of wanting to break out of her situation.




Hunt clearly depicts gender differences in Victorian society in this work, showing the associated double standard of sexual freedoms granted to one and prohibited or disapproved of by the other.


Considered a counterpart to this painting is Hunt's first Christian work, The Light of the World. This shows Jesus with a lantern as he knocks on an overgrown door without a handle. Does the mistress hear his knock as she looks out the window?


William Holman Hunt - The Awakening Conscience

Oil on canvas, 1853, 76 x 56 cm, Tate Britain, London


William Holman Hunt - The Light of the world

Oil on canvas, ca. 1851-56, 49.8 x 26.1 cm, Manchester Art Gallery