"The Two Pre-Raphaelites: Third Article, concluded." Crayon 3 (Dec. 1856), 353-356.

full text

We have now to treat of the works of William Holman Hunt, who has become celebrated for his pictures of a generally somewhat graver character than those of his Pre-Raphaelite brother, John Everett Millais. Holman Hunt’s first Pre-Raphaelite picture was from Sir E. Bulwer Lytton’s well-known novel of "Rienzi;" the subject the death of the young brother of the future Tribune,–the latter kneels on the ground in front, having across his knees the dead body of his early favorite. With hand upraised to heaven, he denounces vengeance upon the ruthless perpetrators of the deed, who around him are standing or sitting on their horses, with apathetic expressions. It was a picture of singular promise, showed great labors of finish, and excellent judgment of expression, and found many admirers, who foresaw the future eminence of the painter.

"A Christian Missionary receiving succor from a Converted British family from the persecution of the Druids," was a large picture, of considerable interest, and of immense executive power. The great difference between the brethren just named, lies not alone in the distinctive choice of subject, but even more widely in the style of painting. Millais’ great forte is great power of gorgeous coloring, and tenderness of expression, while Hunt’s works are of a graver and more massive description; his color is not so brilliant, but sadder; his execution more correct, if it be more laborious;–you perceive everything to be the result of powerful thinking and earnest concentrated intention, and the incontestable vigor of his designs, shows a mind bent on one object. They not unfairly represent the Venetian and Florentine schools; the one, the brilliant coruscations of a genius, the other the ordered powers of an army of men. The picture we have just mentioned is sufficiently suggestive by title, which justly describes the incident represented. In a hut, opening upon a stream, the exhausted missionary has sunk into a seat, while around him are gathered the family to whom he has given this deliverance of the future, while they acknowledge it by succor in this life. The missionary sits pale and fainting, receiving their ministrations, while a boy listens with his ear to the earth for the footsteps of the pursuers; they appear however to be baffled, for none approach, as the view of the exterior shows the vindictive Druids chasing his less fortunate comrades over a wild and rugged country. The limbs of the escaped tremble with exhaustion, and round his feet are the thorns which have obstructed his path, and torn his flesh. A great deal of energetic painting in this picture showed that promise of power and grave thought which time and indomitable perseverance have brought forth. There were several nude figures in this picture which were of the most perfect order of painting, whether for correctness of drawing or profound study of flesh-tint. A great. truth of light and shade pervaded the whole, and for this quality alone, it was worthy of the highest admiration.

"Valentine rescuing Sylvia from Proteus." When the false Proteus had betrayed his nature to the trusting Sylvia, and she, indignant at his treachery and threats of violence, owns before him her love for the then banished Valentine; the confession is overheard by the latter, who appearing to the rescue, confounds the traitor and his one-time friend; he says,

–––"Now dare I not to say

I have one friend alive: thou would’st disprove me.

Who should be trusted now, when one’s right hand

Is perjured to the bosom? Proteus,

I am sorry, I must never trust thee more,

But count the world a stranger for thy sake.

The private wound is deepest : O time, most curst!

’Mongst all foes, that a friend should prove the worst!"

"Proteus. My shame and guilt confounds me.

Forgive me, Valentine : if heavy sorrow

Be a sufficient ransom for offence,

I tender it here. I do as truly suffer,

As e’er I did commit."–Two Gentlemen of Verona.

The magnanimous Valentine shields Sylvia (who, surprised and joyful, scarce believing her deliverance and the appearance of him she loved), stands rebuking the repentant Proteus, who, with abashed face, kneels to both for forgiveness. The haughty nobility and grandeur of the face of Valentine, the dignified manliness of his action–a protest in itself against the banishment he suffers–the resolute firmness of his action, were in exquisite contrast with the defeated but repentant attitude of Proteus, who weak, but not wicked, has yielded to his passions, and now, in their defeat, lies abased. There was a repose and composure of loveliness in the face of Sylvia, over which contentment and happiness are creeping in common with the surprise of her deliverance.

The improvement in power of painting in this picture, over that preceding it, was even more marked than what we have stated as occurring in Millais’ "Child-Christ," over the "Isabella;" the completed power of the painter sprang forth, and the greatest breadth of a peculiarly masterly style of painting, rich and subdued color, masterly and correct drawing, and a most noble and exquisite appreciation of facial expression, were suddenly united with the most vigorous power of design, and an admirable degree of truthful finish. The background was a broadly-painted forest scene carried out to a very high degree. You began to notice in this picture the peculiarly scientific powers of the artist, not only in handling–but in the knowledge of pigments, and the study of the palette; he was clearly a man who had conquered, and whom no crowns could render the greater victor.

"The Hireling Shepherd," represented a shepherd who neglected his charge, to make love to a girl of his class; she sits on the ground nursing a lamb of his flock, and with affected unconcern receives his attentions; he kneels beside her, and having caught a moth (it is of the death’s-head kind), shows it to her: the lamb in her lap is feeding on an unripe apple, and the sheep of his charge go into the neighbor’s corn, and wander into miry places. What her duty has been, except to tempt him, is not apparent; she is a full-blown, robust, rustic beauty, blown upon by the wind, and rained upon by the rain–fearing neither–none of those elegant country lasses one sees in elaborate ribbon ornaments, short kirtles and broad hats, such as frequent the stage and the masquerade, but nowhere else; not of these, but strong as a man, "a daughter of the plough," a head such as might have become the wife of Cain; very little of refinement or weakly good in her; a powerful animal, a tigress of the human kind. He is also a goodly man, rough, rustic, and coarse. The sheep lie about a field in the sun; the field is separated from the corn-land by a shallow water-course, nigh dried up by the summer, and overhung by willows on either side; you see the distant country, polled elms and bright English summer sky. The feet of the pair are in the long, rank grass growing by the water-course, and about them grow the wild marsh-mallow flowers from the uncultured strength of which the bees are gaining their winter’s store. Broad in sun-shadow and light lies the whole, and in producing the vigorous effect of this, the painter showed that thoughtful power and deep scientific observation which we have said characterized him so greatly. It is an absolute fact, that never in this world before had any one attempted to paint the broad, bright effect of sunlight day: what were called sunlights were frequent enough, but no result of scientific observation of natural truth and learned execution had ever been laid before the world. It was well enough known among meteorologists and savans, that the shadows of sunlight partook of the color which was reflected upon them; that grass, which in brightness of day became a brilliant yellow-green, was in its shadows, when reflecting a deep blue overhead, necessarily of a deep blue-green: it was known by the same rule that a sun-shadow upon orange-colored gravel, was more or less purple, as the recipient varied in depth of color: everyone must have seen that when the sun shone in his own bedroom of a morning, that the shadows of the window bars upon the white blind were as blue as blue could be,–how could it be otherwise? These and similar facts of nature were well enough known, but no one thought of painting them before Hunt, who, we suspect, discovered the fact for himself without reference to books. Of course, all this was unknown to the public in general, who see but with the eyes of others,–who have been educated to look at nature with the eyes by which they judged of pictures, not at pictures with the eyes by which they look at nature. The originality, judgment, and skill, were much thrown away at the time, but better knowledge dawned soon, and the painter is receiving the honor which he so justly merited.

"Claudio and Isabella," was a small, narrow picture, representing that scene in the prison, in "Measure for Measure," where Isabella relates the conditions which may save the life of her brother Claudio. The slight-hearted man, clinging to life, says, "Death is a fearful thing:" she replies, "And shamed life a hateful;" and rebukes the sophistry of his weakness. They stand together by the window of the cell, he restlessly trifles with the manacles on his foot, an action expressive of the impatience which gnaws his heart, looks gloomily forward into the darkness of the room, and has dreadingly turned his back upon the light and the window, close by which are the flowers of an apple-tree in full blossom. She, startled then with the first thought that he would have her sacrifice her honor for his life, lays her hands upon his breast with force, and glares with full, doubting eyes upon the gloomy face of him who so vilely shrunk from death. Nothing more perfect than the expressions of face or action can be conceived; he lolls against the wall with unnerved wretchedness, anticipating fate; she, erect, startled from that faith which nature taught her to hold in her brother; the gloomy, narrow prison, the bright sky, and rosy apple-blossoms without, are all suggestive of deep feeling for the subject; he has carved the name "Julliette" upon the wall; perhaps he sees the sweet young face of her he has betrayed, yet whose brave heart took the greater weight of the sin upon herself.

"Duke. Love you the man that wronged you?

"Julliette. Yes, as I love the woman that wronged him."

The reader will observe that we have endeavored but little to describe the expression of features in these pictures; to do so perfectly is beyond the power of words; it becomes us only, on such points, to say that the expression is just, and to suggest by other means what has been done to carry it out. Neither do we attempt to expound the moral of the picture, or point out the motive which the artist had sought to illustrate;–suffice it for us, as we hope it may for the reader, to dwell upon the leading points of each work, and by this means to furnish an idea of the painter’s chief thought, and a clue to his deepest feeling. It would be as useless and tiresome to dilate upon the suggestive minutiæ which fill these works, as it would be to enumerate the colors which compose them, or to descant upon the science which combined them to such great results.

A small picture by Hunt, entitled, "Our English Coast[s]," was at the surface a satire upon the reported defenceless state of the country against foreign invasions–some sheep were straying along the high cliffs which stand the southern bulwark of the island. It had a deeper meaning, however, and was of men and not sheep; one black-mutton had got himself into trouble and thorns, and now stood bewildered and entangled, without effort to free himself, others are following him into the same difficulty, blindly, as men do;–and as men do also, you saw in the background some more of the flock reposing in the sun, while the frisky lambs jump over their indolent comrades, all in profound unconcern for the troubled ones before their eyes. It was a most wonderful piece of painting, the texture of the sheep’s wool a perfect rendering of nature; the close pile and clefts of the wool, its various colors in the sunlight, and their varied actions and expressions were signal proofs of what the artist could make of even so unpromising a subject. The background, a broken cliff, grassed and weeded to the base, looking beyond to rolling downs, which sloped towards the sea,–a part of the sea itself, and the place where the cliff receded from an angle, and turned its back, as it were, upon the spectators, so that the front was completely hidden, yet the sunlight lying upon the place, was reflected into a whitish, hazy glare, which showed above and around it, though the cause was invisible,–a very subtle piece of observation, which we never remember to have seen painted before.

"The Light of the World." The Saviour knocking at the door of a neglected house. "Behold I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me." This has been Hunt’s masterpiece as yet, whether for earnestness of intention, for profound feeling, for executive power, or for intense judgment and knowledge of expression. As if to show that he who could paint so successfully a broad sunlight picture as the last, was also master enough to do the same with the converse:–it was a moonlight effect, and that not of the ordinary great spaces of black shadow and broad light, like day; but a strange, mystic time between the night and day, when the light of the sunken moon yet lingers therein, and mingles with the pale shine of the stars, which the coming day cannot yet quite overcome. High overhead clear blackness is, while on the low horizon you see the greyish light which precedes the dawn. The scene is a waste orchard, the branches of the wild fruit-trees stand ghastly, mingled with the sky; while among the long grass, sprinkled with frosty spiculæ, which shows the night has been keen, lies the unripe and abortive produce of the trees. There is no pathway on the earth, to show the way the Saviour has come, who now stands before the door, with one hand knocking, the other holding the typical lantern which contains the light of faith; the interspaces of light from this fall upon the grass, the door, and upon the drapery and face of Him who knocketh. The royalty of his function is shown by the crown upon his head, intertwined with the thorns of the passion; he is robed like a king, in white and crimson, and upon his breast lies the mystical Urim and Thummim, with the precious stones which bear the names of the chosen tribes. The kingly mantle of crimson has its sides held together at the throat by an orbed ornament significant of the earth. The lantern is bound to the hand by a golden chain, and the hand itself shows the marks of the suffering of the cross. The face,–upon which the effect of both lights which pervade the picture are contending,–that from the sky above, and the lantern which the hand sustains,–is inexpressibly awful and beautiful; a royal dignity and a godlike mercy are blended upon it; it is not the face of an intellectual man, neither is it all softness and tender mercy, but a wonderful combination of expression and feature, suggestive of wisdom and goodness, and godlike judgment, when engaged in the performance of a godlike act and function.

The door is overgrown with weeds, the long briers creep before it, and the clinging ivy has ascended its surface from the earth, and hangs from the roof over the heavy architecture. Rust has deeply eaten the hinges and fastenings of the door. The form and design of the lantern is gothic, expressing that faith which is given the northern nations to keep, as it contains the light: the dome which forms its top, is pierced with starlike openings, through which long streams of light issue forth. We have no more to say of this picture than thus barely to describe it; except that never before has the Saviour been painted more suggestively, or with such awful depth of feeling.

"The Awakening Conscience" shows the interior of one of those maisons damnées, which the wealth of the seducer has furnished for the luxury of a woman who has sold herself and her soul to him. This, as well as the two latter pictures, was of a peculiar effect of light, which, coming through a window in the front of the picture, is mitigated by a sun-blind and trees without;–but the striking point of the effect, and what produced a very singular appearance upon it, was, a large mirror placed against the wall of the room, which, reflecting the window aforesaid and the out-look through it, was the brightest in light of the whole picture, so you saw the effect of the direct light and its shadows as affected by the reflections from the glass. In the front, and opposed to the mirror, was the man, a handsome tiger of the human species; heartless and hard as death; one of his arms surrounds the victim of his passions, whilst the disengaged hand is striking the keys of a piano, the music of which he is accompanying with his voice;–the air is, "Oft in the stilly night," as we see by the music-sheet on the instrument. The music, the words, or some train of thought connected therewith, have aroused the dormant conscience of the light woman; her dead heart is stirred, and, starting from the arm of her companion, she stands erect, and turns from him, so that we see her face:–the lips drawn against the teeth, the retracted and expanded nostril, with the hard-set cheek, show the force of the sudden blow which has awakened her memory,–her wide eyes, straining on vacancy, seem as if they saw Hell open before her, the hands, clutched together, show how keenly she feels the evil which has befallen her; the trinkets upon them drive into her flesh, and the fingers are intertwined with spasmodic force. This emotion is invisible to him, and he heedlessly carries on the melody which has produced so notable an effect upon the woman:–there is withal an insolent shamelessness about him which one feels assured would guard against any such an outbreak. He is handsome, as the tiger is, false, hard, and cruel; his type is the cat on the floor, which, having brought a living bird into the room, grants short respite to it, because of the singing, which has disturbed her purpose of destruction. The whole room is in keeping with the subject; gorgeous and gaudy furniture, many large mirrors, ornaments all in a falsely splendid and showy taste, explain what has been the early education of the inhabitant; you see her embroidery–a rose, far larger, and outstaring in colors, the delicacy of nature. The paper upon the wall of the room is significant, and might have suggested repentance before; it bears a vineyard, in which corn is mingled with the vine, birds destroy the grapes of the latter, while at the foot sleeps the boy-guardian, whose horn, falling from his hand, shows how he has neglected his duty of wakefulness and watching. The motto of the picture is, "As he who taketh away a garment in cold weather, so is he who singeth songs unto a heavy heart." Upon the frame are bells ringing and marigolds, the emblems of warning, and sorrow; at the top, in chief, is set a star. The color of the picture has a subdued and gloomy richness about it, which befits the subject;–you may imagine how, in the deep shadows there are about the room, she came to see, that

–––"In dark corners of her palace stood

Uncertain shapes; and unawares

On white-eyed phantasms weeping tears of blood,

And horrible night-mares

"And hollow shades enclosing hearts of flame,

And with dim-fretted foreheads all,

On corpses three months old, at noon she came

That stood against the wall."

Now remains "The Scapegoat," Hunt’s last and largest picture. In Leviticus, xiv., it is commanded to be instituted, for an atonement of the sins of Israel, that a chosen goat, having had "confessed over him the iniquities of the children of Israel," should be driven forth into the wilderness, "into a land not inhabited." It was the custom of the Jews to tie round the horns of this goat a fillet of red worsted, which, should the animal be afterwards discovered, and that found bleached white, it was considered that the atonement was accepted. Hunt has painted the goat bearing this. The "land not inhabited" is here shown as the borders of the Dead Sea, upon whose salt-encrusted margin the animal is now staggering, nigh to death;–utterly exhausted, he sways upon his feet, which are trammeled in the brittle crust of salt, his hard, glazing eyes look out with a piteous bitterness, as if to see if any persecutor waited him in that waste land; you see he has been down to the water to drink, but repelled by its nauseousness, returned therefrom, and now sees no hope or relief. A masterpiece of painting was the long hairy wool of the animal, in which all who had ever seen such a thing (or even the hide of a camel, which perhaps most resembles it), recognize the peculiar dry lustre and dead silky shine, not unlike fine worsted (which in fact it is), and the wavy appearance which characterizes such skin coverings;–if we may say so, it looks somewhat opalesent [sic].

The painter, who has recently returned from a lengthened sojourn in the East, spent many weeks on the unwholesome borders of the Dead Sea in executing the background of this picture,–it is a marvelous piece of powerful execution,–the foreground is white with crusted salt, which the floodings of the sea have left upon its shore; you see skeletons of camels and other beasts of burden thereupon,–and just within the margin of the shallow water,–they have wandered to the deceitful water to die: across the sea, which reflects the clear, brilliant sky, are seen the mountains of Moab, a waste purple and orange splendor lying upon them from the setting sun;–the great full-moon shines lucently pale in the heavens, and is reflected, with the hills, and the clouds, and the daylight. From what we have said, the reader will understand that this is a picture representing a goat nearly as large as life, placed in a very striking situation, and with an effect of light which was peculiarly startling,–by no means a picture, the object of which was to please the eye. It, however, found so wide an acceptance, and so many admirers, that we hope it will always be considered one of the noblest works of art produced by an Englishman.

It is not a little interesting to observe the devotedness with which Holman Hunt has pursued his object of painting these scenes in this fitting spot. He sought the borders of the Dead Sea to illustrate the subject of the "Scapegoat." The background of "The Light of the World" was painted in the bitter nights of an English February, by struggling lantern light. The "Hireling Shepherd," in a field in a hot July. "The Awakening Conscience," in an appropriate habitation. On the windy cliffs of Sussex he found that of "Our English Coasts:"–and the beech-woods of Kent furnished the broad masses of foliage, solid trunks, and tall fern for the "Valentine and Proteus." By this we mean distinctly to say, that Mahomet went to the mountain, did not have the mountain brought into the studio,–if it is only considered what this is, even in the most favorable circumstances, as those of the "Hireling Shepherd," it will appear that a great amount of physical suffering and endurance has gone to the making of these pictures;–think of painting a Marsh-mallow, petal and leaf, with every stripe of the former, and rib of the latter, under the sun of a scorching July! This concludes what we have to say of William Holman Hunt and his works:–all honor to him!

The works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti which are known to the public are but few; but, as we said, at the first, even these would place him in a most honorable position besides his two brethren; he has painted innumerable water-color pictures, which, from the nature of their subjects, are likely to find admirers but amongst the few:–nothing can be more exquisite in the design, more delightfully pure in the coloring, or more admirable in the expression than these little pictures; but it is useless to treat of them, as they are almost inaccessible to the world; in the portfolios of private collectors, and far more even than this, the subjects are such as require almost a special education, and a most rare and elevated description of mind to appreciate properly, or at least fairly describe. The subjects he chooses are of the subtlest and most delicate order, almost psychological problems in fact. The reader will see the difficulty of finding matter of general interest in these, and understand why we do not feel ourselves competent to descant upon them. The pictures to which we allude are two. "The Girlhood of the Virgin," and "The Annunciation." The former showed the youthful destined mother of Christ, in early womanhood: the artist had taken this period of the Blessed Virgin’s life as a type of feminine purity;–she is seated at an embroidery frame, with her mother near her, and her father at the open side of the apartment attends to a vine, which grows over a trellis, upon which latter nestles a white dove; a young angel, bearing the palm, is standing attending upon a tall lily; the vase from which this grows is sustained by some books, the titles of which indicate the virtues. The head of the Virgin is most solemnly and holily beautiful; about the whole is happiness, repose, and purity.

"The Annunciation" was a small picture of very peculiar qualities of color; of which the main, and indeed, almost the whole, was a brilliant white. The Angel, who does not stand upon the floor, but is raised above it with pointed feet, with radiant flames around them, carries a palm-branch, and with still gesture performs his mission to the startled hearer:–who, from reclining upon a couch, has risen astonished, and now listens to the divine intimation with startled awe; her face is most delicately beautiful, and its expression perfect. The robes of the Angel are white, as is the dress of the Virgin; the walls and floor of the room are the same; almost the sole piece of color in the picture is a pure crimson: the flames bright and clear, and their reflections upon the floor distinct, though not offensively so. There was much exquisite drawing and careful color in this most delicate work.

We have now finished our review of the works of the Pre-Raphaelite painters of the modern school; those young men who have set forth (and now accomplished with most marked success) to reform the style of painting in England. We hope we have shown, not unfairly, what are their objects, and the means they have taken to carry them out: that they have seriously and most earnestly bent themselves to the task of purifying art, which no one can doubt. That there are faults in every one of the pictures we have mentioned, is beyond denial, but these have been neither the errors of willful ignorance, the weaknesses of idleness, or those which always result from a want of proper consideration of the subject chosen;–but rather such as result from an earnestness, which hesitates at nothing to accomplish a purpose, the gravity and importance of which is ever before them. It is not our province or intention to seek cause for censure, but rather to do honor to those who have bravely struggled through obstacles of the most overwhelming kind, to a great success at last. We may point out this example to others, who may as "nobly dare," and wish a like success to similar aspirants.

If we have erred in executing our task, it has been through love and admiration, and an honest applause of great efforts.

One thing we may add;–not as an apology for alleged defects, but to show what a few years of earnest labor may achieve, and that our readers may join with us in hoping that many more may follow with a like honor and success,–is this, that no one of the Brotherhood whose works we have described, is yet in his thirtieth year, Millais being three years short of this; Rossetti two, and Hunt one.

The other Pre-Raphaelite Brother, whose name we have barely mentioned–Thomas Woolner, a sculptor, is known by many exquisite works of his art, by some statues and designs of most delicate and pure fancy, in which these qualities are united with a rare vigor and manly force of feeling;–he has shown, that one day–may it be soon–he will take a place in public estimation beside those who have always honored him as themselves. If space be allowed to us, in future we may hope to say something of these sculptures, but our object of describing the works of the painters of the Brotherhood has been accomplished, and this paper has drawn itself out to an unusual, but not, we hope, an unwarrantable length.

This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

Return to the list of reviews