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The Awakening Conscience
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Looking at this painting of a flirty young couple, you probably wouldn’t guess that is jam-packed with religious allegories and implicit warnings against being a harlot. Oh, but it is…

William Holman Hunt, the artist behind The Awakening Conscience, is best known as one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which is often attributed as the first avant-garde movement. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which along with Hunt was founded by D.G. Rossetti and J.E. Millais, was established upon their shared belief that the art community needed to move towards extreme realism and reject the Royal Academy’s promotion of art like that of the Renaissance master/Ninja Turtle, Raphael (hence the Brotherhood's name).

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood strongly believed that the purpose of art was to represent profound allegories and that the right way to do so was by depicting near perfect representations of nature and common life. Behind this conviction lay a religious motivation (surprise, surprise). The Pre-Raphaelites were originally inspired by the writer John Ruskin’s belief that the recreation and appreciation of beauty through art and literature is an innately religious act.

Thus, behind the prominent beauty of this painting, such as the cute couple who seem to have been wrapped in an embrace just moments ago, or the beautiful garden in the unseen foreground, there are dark messages that Hunt has hidden within this seemingly commonplace scene.

According to Hunt, The Awakening Conscience was inspired by a verse from Proverbs stating ‘As he that taketh away a garment in cold weather, so is he that singeth songs to a heavy heart.’ For those who aren’t super familiar with bible verses, it can be hard to determine the context of this line. But don’t worry, Hunt left plenty of clues within his painting to communicate his personal interpretation and produce a new take on the age-old story of the fallen woman. So get ready because we’re about to go full-on ‘Where’s Waldo’ on this painting.

If we do some sleuthing we can see that the young woman is not wearing a wedding ring *cue gasp from the audience.* The gentleman, who we can tell is a visitor as he does not put away his hat, has cleverly rented out a place for his lover so that he can both easily meet her in private and establish a power over her by forcing her to rely on him. This uneven power dynamic is reflected by the cat playing with a wounded bird in the bottom left and the tangled yarn in the lower right corner, representing the web of constraints that is slowly closing around the young woman. These signify her present, while her delicate white dress that is beginning to fray at the edges reminds us that she was once pure.

Meanwhile, the symbols pointing towards her future split towards two very different potentials: hope or destruction. According to Hunt, the gentleman’s discarded gloves reveal the all too true possibility that he might abandon her soon, leaving her besmirched and with nowhere to live. And while most of the allegorical signs foresee doom and gloom, the central focus of the painting, the young woman rising from the man’s lap, hints at a ray of hope. We can see from the sheet music on the piano, that the man has just stopped playing Oft in the Stilly Night by Thomas Moore and that combined with the picturesque garden, reflected in the mirror, is what has caused the young woman unexpectedly stand up. Hunt leads us to infer that these stimuli have ‘awakened her conscience’ by reminding her of her innocent youth.

The Awakening Conscience was unique compared to its Victorian precursors in that it contained a moral to its narrative without jamming that lesson in your face like a lot of older religious art tends to do. So what exactly is the moral of this story? One could argue something like, ‘no matter how far you fall you can always repent and redeem yourself.’ But I like to think that it’s really a warning: next time you’re banging a dude, take notice if he leaves his leather gloves behind because you’re about to be dumped and homeless. Also, ask yourself why you’re banging a guy who casually wears leather gloves...

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Here is what Wikipedia says about The Awakening Conscience

The Awakening Conscience (1853) is an oil-on-canvas painting by the English artist William Holman Hunt, one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which depicts a young woman rising from her position in the lap of a man and gazing transfixed out of the window of a room.

The painting is in the collection of the Tate Britain in London.

Subject matter

Initially, the painting appears to depict a momentary disagreement between husband and wife, but the title and a host of symbols within the painting make it clear that this is a mistress and her lover. The woman's clasped hands provide a focal point and the position of her left hand emphasizes the absence of a wedding ring. Around the room are dotted reminders of her "kept" status and her wasted life: the cat beneath the table toying with a bird; the clock concealed under glass; a tapestry which hangs unfinished on the piano; the threads which lie unravelled on the floor; the print of Frank Stone's Cross Purposes on the wall; Edward Lear's musical arrangement of Tennyson's poem "Tears, Idle Tears" which lies discarded on the floor, and the music on the piano, Thomas Moore's "Oft in the Stilly Night", the words of which speak of missed opportunities and sad memories of a happier past. The discarded glove and top hat thrown on the table top suggest a hurried assignation.

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. 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). It also bears a verse from the Book of Proverbs (25:20): "As he that taketh away a garment in cold weather, so is he that singeth songs to an heavy heart".

The mirror on the rear wall provides a tantalizing glimpse out of the scene. The window — opening out onto a spring garden, in direct contrast to the images of entrapment within the room — is flooded with sunlight. The woman's face does not display a look of shock that she has been surprised with her lover; whatever attracts her is outside of both the room and her relationship. The Athenæum commented in 1854:

The author of "The Bridge of Sighs" could not have conceived a more painful-looking face. The details of the picture, the reflection of the spring trees in the mirror, the piano, the bronze under the lamp, are wonderfully true, but the dull indigoes and reds of the picture make it melancholy and appropriate, and not pleasing in tone. The sentiment is of the Ernest Maltravers School: to those who have an affinity for it, painful; to those who have not, repulsive.

In some ways this painting is a companion to Hunt's Christian painting The Light of the World, a picture of Christ holding a lantern as he knocks on an overgrown handleless door which Hunt said represented "the obstinately shut mind". The young woman here could be responding to that image, her conscience pricked by something outside of herself. Hunt intended this image to be The Light of the World's "material counterpart in a picture representing in actual life the manner in which the appeal of the spirit of heavenly love calls a soul to abandon a lower life." In Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood Hunt wrote that Peggotty's search for Emily in David Copperfield had given him the idea for the composition and he began to visit "different haunts of fallen girls" looking for a suitable setting. He did not plan to recreate any particular scene from David Copperfield; he initially wanted to capture something more general: "the loving seeker of the fallen girl coming upon the object of his search", but he reconsidered, deciding that such a meeting would engender different emotions in the girl than the repentance he wanted to show. He eventually settled on the idea that the girl's companion could be singing a song that suddenly reminded her of her former life and thereby act as the unknowing catalyst for her epiphany.

The model for the girl was Annie Miller, who sat for many of the Pre-Raphaelites and to whom Hunt was engaged until 1859. The male figure may be based on Thomas Seddon or Augustus Egg, both painter friends of Hunt.


Check out the full Wikipedia article about The Awakening Conscience.