Narrative Painting: The Awakening Conscience

11 Jul

Among the lush and gorgeous Victorian art movement known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were artists who not only painted narrative paintings, that is paintings that tell a complex situation in their details, but more so and more novelly, did so using original scenes.

In other words, painting a scene in which by examining the details one can work out an entire narrative was nothing knew. But these scenes were always well known events. In Victorian times these events were obsessively biblical. You can find hundreds of detailed scenes on biblical events. But William Holman Hunt, one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who as a group stressed a return to abundant detail, intense colours, and complex compositions started doing something even more daring, he painted scenes with narrative that he just made up himself.

Non-biblical scenes! Making up your own stories! Bolderash! Preposterous! Poppycock! What kind of arrogant bastard would make up his own situations instead using classical, biblical or even major current events? Theodore Gericualt, the reknowned French painter who had died shortly before the birth of the Pre-Raphalites made detailed narrative paintings based on current events, pretty novel, but at least he humbly chose important national situations, not made up ones. What cheek!

So you get the idea. In any case, what we really care about examining here is how Holman gets across an incredibly detailed situation in a single painted. As our first illustration of this we shall turn to one of his msot famous works, The Awakening Conscience. (Note, this last time i was in London i was strolling through the Tate Britain when i stumbled across this guide leading a small tour and talking at length about certain paintings. I turned off my ipod and followed them. This woman leading the group was AWEsome to listen to. She discussed some of these very paintings and i was utterly transfixed by the stuff she pointed out. I mention it lest you think i’m smart or cultured enough to figure out this stuff on my own. I wish i knew her name cause i’d tell you to take one of her painting tours if you’re ever in London.)

The Awakening Conscience

The Awakening Conscience, William Holman Hunt, 1853

So what’s happening here?

This woman is the man’s mistress, a kept woman with no money of her own. He is using her for hanky panky, has no intention of ever marrying her, and she is utterly dependent upon him and when he tosses her aside, as he absolutely will, she will likely end up an alcoholic prostitute. Basically she is like Fontaine in Les Miserables just before she is pregnant and tossed aside by her callous, deflowering lover. However, unlike Fontaine, this woman is having a spiritual epiphany right this moment, one that is likely to cause her to change her life, her situation, certainly get rid of this bum, and live a virtuous life.

We know all this because the details in the painting tell us all this and more. Let me demonstrate:

She has rings on all her fingers except the ring finger. So she’s unmarried, sitting on this guy’s lap AND wearing a sleeping gown. The hat on the table says the man is a visitor and not a permanent resident.This makes the young woman clearly the man’s mistress, not a young maiden he’s courting for marriage.

The objects around them fill everything in. The cat is toying with a bird and both are in a the same perspective as the woman and the guy. This signifies the man is toying with the woman with the same callow disregard. However, just like woman,  the cat’s been distracted by something (probably the young woman standing up so abruptly), and the bird has a chance to escape.

A tapestry hangs unfinished on the piano, the threads of which lie unravelled on the floor; also lying discarded on the floor is a musical arrangement of Tennyson’s poem “Tears, Idle Tears”; on teh piano is the sheet music for a well known song at the time, Thomas Moore’s Stilly Night”, the lyrics of which speak of missed opportunities and sad memories of a happier past. A soiled, discarded white glove on the floor symbolizes the woman’s fate if she stays with her lover. The picture on the wall shows the biblical story of the women taken into adultery. A the print of Frank Stones’s Cross Purposes on the wall.

Many of these details clearly would not be recognizable to a modern audience but would be obvious to  a victorian one. Here is an especially poignant one: “The room is too cluttered and gaudy to be in a Victorian family home; the bright colours, unscuffed carpet, and pristine, highly-polished furniture speak of a room recently furnished for a mistress. Art historian Elizabeth Prettejohn notes that although the interior is now viewed as “Victorian” it still exudes the “‘nouveau-riche’ vulgarity” that would have made the setting distasteful to contemporary viewers.[1] The painting’s frame is decorated with further symbols: bells (for warning), marigolds (for sorrow), and a star above the girl’s head (a sign of spiritual revelation).”

However, the woman is rising. Literally rising. The centerpiece of the entire painting is actually not the woman, it’s something beyond the room, beyond the woman, beyond the situation, it’s a shining light of natural beauty,and nature to the Pre-Raphaelites symbolizes morality and truth.The natural world, in all its splendor, is calling to the young woman with an offer of redemption. Plus, the painting is called, you know, The Awakening Conscience. So there’s that clue too.

And here’s a killer detail:  The model for the image of the young lady? Well, it was actually Holman Hunt’s own mistress, Annie Miller. Hunt was trying to convince Miller to leave behind her life as a mistress, and reform herself into a good woman of society he could marry with dignity. She never did take to this idea of becoming his Good Wife and they eventually broke up.

Well! To tell you the truth, when i started this post i was going to run down and analyse  several paintings but this post has actually reached what i consider to be an optimum maximum length. Longer than this and i feel the post becomes too much. This is the internet after all. I want you to be able to get your bite sized morsel and carry on. So let’s do this again one day, shall we?

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Posted by on July 11, 2012 in Uncategorized


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