"The Exhibition of the Royal Academy." Art-Journal 1 June 1854, 165-166.

excerpt

No. 377. ‘The Awakening Conscience,’ W. H. Hunt. This picture is presumed to embody the sentiment of two scriptural texts; the former from Ecclesiastes, chap. xiv., verse 18,–"As of the green leaves on a thick tree some fall and some grow, so is the generation of flesh and blood;" and the latter from Isaiah–"Strengthen ye the feeble hands and confirm ye the tottering knees; say ye to the faint-hearted be ye strong; fear ye not, behold your God." Without a title, the purport of this work could not be guessed at; with a title the subject may be recognised by courtesy; yet what light soever the title may throw upon the picture, it is entirely extinguished by the scriptural quotations. But let us describe the composition: there are two figures, a young man wearing the ordinary loose morning dress of the present day, his manner and appointments are those of a youth about town. The other is a female figure who stands turned to the spectator, while her companion leans back in an easy chair, touching a piano, and singing "Oft in the stilly night." The expression of her features, which is intended to be accompanied by a shudder, is that of horror, although it might equally describe a paroxysm of fear, or an orgasm of rage. The points of reflection are placed so low on the eyes as to give a supernatural, or even death-like, appearance to them; but whatever indeterminate effect this may have, it is very certain that it is an expression declaring reason for the time unseated. Now, the awakening of the conscience is profound and progressive, and any description of this should address the intelligence to a deep-lying inward source, by the contemplation of calm but intense expression. The piano, the furniture, the dress of the figures, everything is made out with the most studious exactitude; but independent of many considerations into which we cannot enter, we humbly submit that the labour on such a version of the subject is thrown away. It may be considered a bold and original style of treatment, to secularise a scriptural text, but it is not originality: it bears the same relation to originality that bad taste does to cultivation and refinement. To deny the painter genius, and, what is sometimes better–thought, would be unjust: but the eccentricities or the errors of genius are more startling than those of persons of average powers.


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Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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