How does William Holman Hunt observe the role of fallen woman through his use of composition in his painting The Awakening Conscience?

Holman Hunt’s piece titled The Awakening Conscience[1] represents the contemporary subject of the fallen woman. This piece is dated from 1853 and acts as a depiction of ‘the kept woman who suddenly, whilst sitting on her lover’s knee is struck with remorse and jumps up to throw off her guilty life and to follow henceforth in the paths of virtue.’[2] By simply describing the painting itself, I have transformed Holman Hunt’s depiction of a still moment on the canvas, into a sequence, a narrative, a technique that is repeatedly applied by critics who treat a painting at any length. However, if the viewer only acknowledges the painting’s former elements, such as its form, tone and colour; they neglect Hunt’s intended symbolic representations which provide the painting with a moral message towards the fallen woman. John Ruskin, the leading art critic of the Victorian era, provides an exquisite reading of the painting, as he points towards the paintings singular meaning. As Ruskin describes:

…the torn and dying bird upon the floor; the gilded tapestry…the woman taken in adultery; nay, the very hem of the girl’s poor dress, which the painter has laboured so closely thread by thread, has story in it if we think how soon its pure whiteness may be soiled with dust and rain; her outcast feet falling in the street; and the fair garden flowers; seen in the reflected sunshine of the mirror.[3]

From Ruskin’s account, he notes that Hunt’s use of visual signifiers must be encoded for the subject to be fully and contextually understood. Consequently, Hunt enquires to viewer whether the ‘fallen’ woman will now rise? Ruskin’s statement disagrees with this, as he notes that the woman will remain fallen. However, when examining the paintings counterpart, The Light of the World,[4] it is possible for one to disagree with his assertion, as one interprets that her spirit will be awakened and as a result, she will be saved from the line of prostitution. This is depicted through the woman’s gestural nuance as it is apparent from her facial expression that she has realised the error of her ways.

The Pre-Raphaelites would often focus upon ‘subjects from common life’[5] as it is evident from subsequent works such as Rossetti’s Found[6] which demonstrates a similar attitude towards the fallen woman. One concept that enables one to recognise Hunt’s intended moral message is to analyse the position of the couple. The model, Annie Miller, ‘a girl of easy virtue from the Chelsea slum of Cross Keys,’[7] is in a state of undress, which portrays her sense of intimacy with the man. However, she is dressed in a white laced garment. Traditionally, white is the colour that is often associated with purity. Whereas, the Victorian gentleman is well dressed, which establishes how he is from a higher social class compared to the woman. The models’ dress acts as a visual aid demonstrating how the fallen woman would often be scrutinized for her sexual act. Tim Barringer describes how ‘it was not the men who frequented prostitutes who stood condemned by society; rather, by a widely accepted double standard, it was the prostitute herself who was held responsible.’[8]

However, from Hunt’s choice of iconography, it confirms that the woman is most certainly a ‘fallen woman.’ The painting projects a fierce intensity to the viewer as it can be read as a historical documentation of the role of a prostitute in Victorian society. The painting is elaborately symbolic and obsessively realistic. Therefore, the painting requires a detailed reading for the subject to be fully understood within its cultural moment. The apartment has a garish interior and it is stated that Hunt rented a ‘maison de convenance,’ in order to achieve the exact authenticity and correctness of detail. In the Victorian era, the ‘new’ was not trusted as Ruskin commented that the ‘immorality of the couple’s relationship was expressed through the ‘fatal newness,’ of the furnishings.[9] Hunt’s heightened visual awareness and obsessive documentation of the scene is enhanced by his choice of iconography. This is acknowledged by the analogy of the cat tormenting the bird as it acts as an equivalent to the prostitute being victim of the male predator. In the Victorian era, birds in cages were often used as a symbol to portray the female’s role within society. As Deborah D. Morse clarifies that she is ‘…implicitly likened to a pet, kept for the amusement of the male in the canvas who has created this love nest for his own nefarious purposes.’[10]

The piece’s present location is at the Tate Britain and had been originally exhibited by Holman Hunt in the Royal Academy summer exhibition of 1854. The piece is oil-on-canvas and the frame has the uncomplicated structure of a Renaissance cassetta that is decorated with symbolic representations that enhance the portrayal of the fallen woman within the painting. As Hunt comments, ‘Upon the frame are ringing bells and marigolds, the emblems of warning and sorrow; at the top, in chief is set a star.’[11] The star at the top centre of the frame is said to symbolise redeeming light thus, it highlights the sunshine that is reflected upon the mirror. The vivid light within the painting governs the way in which Holman Hunt was faced with having to search for a source of inspiration for his painting. As Holman Hunt describes how he fell upon the text in the Book of Proverbs:

“As he that taketh away a garment in cold weather, so is he that singeth songs to a heavy heart.” These words, expressing the unintended stirring up of the deeps of pure affection by the idle sing-song of an empty mind, led me to see how the companion of the girl’s fall might himself be the unconscious utterer of a divine message. In scribbles I arranged the two figures to present the woman recalling the memory of her childish home, and breaking away from her gilded cage with a startled awakening while her shallow companion still sings on, ignorantly intensifying her repentant purpose.[12]

By Holman Hunt placing the verse from the Book of Proverbs upon the frame it enhances the weighing moral and spiritual issues that he intended to explore in his painting. To enhance Holman Hunt’s statement Carol Jacobi, a curator at the Tate states that: ‘The Bible had an advantage over Renaissance and Romantic subjects in that it was a trace of an ancient history, an apparent insight into older principles and more universal truths.’[13]

Finally, Hunt’s painting serves to illustrate a psychological narrative of the fallen woman in Victorian society. In this respect, it is evident that through the devices that Hunt employs to his painting he provides an insightful portrayal to the female’s conscience being awakened. Taking into account Ruskin’s criticism, it forces one to reassess that even the smallest detail within the painting contribute towards the paintings overall aesthetic.

[1] William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience [Oil on canvas] Tate Britain Art Gallery (1853)

[2] Andrea Rose, The Pre-Raphaelites, (London: Phaidon, 1992) pg.52

[3] Kate Flint, ‘Reading The Awakening Conscience Rightly’, in Pre-Raphaelites Re-viewed, ed. by Marcia R. Pointon, (New York: Manchester University Press, 1989) pg.46

[4] William Holman Hunt, The Light of the World, [Oil on canvas] Manchester Art Gallery (1853-4)

[5] Carol Jacobi, ‘William Holman Hunt, 1827-1910’, in The Cambridge Companion to the Pre-Raphaelites, ed. by Elizabeth Prettejohn (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012) pg.251

[6] Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Found, [Oil on Canvas] Delaware Art Museum, Delaware (1854-55)

[7] Andrea Rose, The Pre-Raphaelites Portraits, (Oxford Illustrated Press, 1981) pg.103

[8] T.J Barringer, Reading the Pre-Raphaelites, (United States: Yale University Press, 1999) pg.94

[9]Clive Edwards and Margaret Ponsonby’, ‘Desirable Commodity or Practical Necessity? The Sale and Consumption of Second-Hand Furniture , 1750-1900, in Buying for the Home: Shopping for the Domestic From The Seventeenth Century to the Present ed. by David E. Hussey and Margaret Ponsonby (England: Ashgate Limited, 2008) pg.136

[10] Martin A. Danahay, ‘Nature Red in Hoof and Paw: Domestic Animals and Violence in Victorian Art’,The Nineteenth Century: Victorian Animal Dreams: Representations of Animals In Victorian Literature and Culture (England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007) pg.110

[11] William Holman Hunt, William Holman Hunt and His Works: A Memoir of the Artist Life, with Descriptions of his Pictures (London: James Nisbet & Co, 1861) pg.34

[12] Linda Nochlin, Realism and Tradition in Art, 1848-1900: Sources and Documents in History of Art Series ed. by H.W. Jonson (London: Prentice Hall, 1966) pg.109

[13] Carol Jacobi, ‘William Holman Hunt, 1827-1910’, in The Cambridge Companion to the Pre-Raphaelites, ed. by Elizabeth Prettejohn (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012) pg.128


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