William Holman Hunt, 'The Awakening Conscience' 1853

William Holman Hunt
The Awakening Conscience 1853
Oil on canvas
support: 762 x 559 mm frame: 1060 x 857 x 97 mm
Presented by Sir Colin and Lady Anderson through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1976

Nature

Pre-Raphaelite responses to nature constitute a dramatically original aspect of the movement in terms of both artistic theory and style. Partly inspired by the writings of John Ruskin, the artists successfully developed their own novel and precise method of transcribing the natural world in oil paint, based on close looking and sustained engagement with the motif.

Vivid natural imagery appears in Pre-Raphaelite subjects from Shakespeare, and in imagined scenes of the past reconfigured in the present. Other works placed unfamiliar aspects of contemporary labour in landscape settings and engaged with modernity as represented in the increasingly compromised natural environment around London.

The Pre-Raphaelite process of intense looking resulted in a new, distinctively modern, style. Critics claimed that these highly detailed paintings were copied from photographs. In fact, the artists rarely used photography, but their paintings nevertheless reveal that they absorbed photography’s precision of focus, flattening of forms, composition and radical cropping of the visual field.

Pre-Raphaelite landscape paintings engage with developments in the natural sciences, geology, botany, meteorology and even astronomy. Debates about evolution and the history of the earth raged in the years before and after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). The Pre-Raphaelites were acutely aware that the claims of science and religion were increasingly at odds.