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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Discover our in-depth biography of the life and career of William Holman Hunt.

William Holman Hunt's position in the history of art was secured as the founder of the Pre-Raphaelite School of painting and the work he produced in accordance with the principles he played a major part in establishing. Hunt was born Willian Hobman Hunt, in Cheapside, London, on 2 April 1827, his father managed a warehouse. He changed Hobman to Holman as a consequence of a spelling error on his baptismal Certificate.

The Royal Academy

Hunt's first attempt to join the Royal Academy was unsuccessful and in order to support himself he found work as a clerk. Undaunted, he tried again, and in 1844 was accepted. The poetry of Keats had already had a major impact on Hunt, along with the works of Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin. Hunt had been a member of a sketching society called, The Cyclographic Club, and whilst it was here that he first encountered Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais, it was their association with Hunt at The Royal Academy the provided the impetus, in 1848, for the formation of the Pre-Rapahelites with all three men present at the inaugural meeting. Other painters would join them, most notably, James Collinson, Thomas Woolner and F.G Stephens. Ford Madox Brown was invited to join but declined though he remained close to the group.

The Holy Land for Realism: In the early 1850s, Hunt visited Palestine to see for himself the background against which famous biblical events took place, so that he could reproduce them faithfully in his work. The results of this can be seen in his work, The Scapegoat.


By 1860, although Hunt was regarded as a leading English painter, he was isolated from the mainstream by his frequent absences from the country and his adherence to Pre-Rapahelite principles. In 1859, following the breakdown of his relationship with Annie Miller who had modelled for Hunt several times and most famously as the female subject of the painting, The Awakening Conscience, he got married to Fanny Waugh, who was also an artists model and can be seen in Hunt’s painting, Isabella. The two went to Italy and in 1867 Fanny gave birth to a son. Unfortunately, within a year she contracted a virluant form of tuberculosis and died. Hunt was to later sculpt a tomb for her for the English Cemetery in Florence. On retuning to England, Hunt sought to marry Edith, Fanny’s sister, which of course was illegal, so the marriage had to take place abroad.

Later Years

In 1905 Hunt wrote a two volume autobiography and around this time the Order of Merit was bestowed on him by King Edward VII. As he got older, Hunt's eyesight started to fail and unable to achieve the high standards of his previous work, he gave up painting. Hunt died in Kensington on 7 September 1910. He was interred in St Paul’s Cathedral.

The Pre-Raphaelites

Rossetti had been keen to develop links between romantic poetry, literature more generally and art and these common themes can be seen in the works produced by the Pre-Raphaelities. Primarily, the Brotherhood was a reform movement and central to this was Hunt’s revolt against the painting conventions of the Royal Academy and what he regarded as the pernicious influence of Sir Joshua Reynolds. This had begun, so the Pre-Raphaelites believed, with the Mannerist artists of the Italian Renaissance who succeeded Michelangelo and Raphael, although it was the latter who was though to have had a corrupting influence on the way art was taught from then on.

The aims and objectives of the Pre-Raphaelites, together with their debates, were published in their periodical, Germ and the Pre-Raphaelite Journal. They can be summarised as follows.

  1. The artist has to have something genuine to commit to canvas
  2. A close study of the natural world was necessary, enabling it to be reproduced in paint more realistically and down to the finest detail
  3. To take what they regarded as the good or the noble from previous art, but to exclude the elements that were about sticking ridgidly to convention or painting in a formulaic style that had been taught
  4. Finally, and the one they regarded as most important, was simply to paint good pictures

Every painting had to tell a story, convey a single moral idea or depict a scene form the bible or literature. Medieval religious art and culture had a particular significance because the Brotherhood thought that both contained a spiritual purity and creative interplay that had since been lost. Hunt wanted to make serious attempts to express on canvas what he saw, untainted by the artistic conventions of the day. Symbolic realism is a key factor in Hunt’s work, where images or common everyday objects are used to draw the viewer into the real story behind the painting.

This is no where better illustrated that in, The Awakening Conscience, which, at first glance, seems to depict a minor tiff between husband and wife. It is only through reading the symbolism that it becomes clear that this is a mistress, a kept woman and her lover, the absence of a wedding ring, the cat toying with a bird, the uncompleted tapestry, the clock under glass and the sheet music entitled Tears, Idle Tears all work to reveal the truth.

Hunt's Paintings

Hunt's work is startling, it draws the eye, appearing at first, quite gaudy. He achieves this through the use of bright, clear colours, painted onto a white background rather than dark underpainting which was the convention of the day. His hand is clear and his attention to detail verges on the photographic. His use of light is naturalistic and he went to great lengths to make sure that he achieved this. The Scapegoat was painted on the shores of the Dead Sea.

Whilst Hunt uses poetry as a basis for his work, for example, Isabella and The Lady of Shallot, it is his stunning rendition of religious themes that brought him fame. However, critical reaction to his early work wasn’t kind, labelling it ugly. Nevertheless, his naturalistic and detailed presentation had been noted. In 1850, Thomas Comber met Hunt when he was exhibiting at the Royal. Comber was to become Hunt's main patron, a friend and advisor on the business side of art. In 1852, Manchester Art Gallery bought The Hireling Shepherd, the first of Hunt’s work to feature symbolic realism.

Loyal to the End

During his lifetime, Hunt was keen to publicise his work and for it to be viewed by the public. Out of all the Pre-Raphaelites he was the only one to adhere to their principles throughout his life.