Art beat // A Victorian revolutionary

The MIA showcases William Holman Hunt

WHITTIER — The parlor scene painted by William Holman Hunt in “The Awakening Conscience” is a visual catalogue of the gaudy furnishings of Victorian England.

An upright piano covered in glossy veneer is pushed up against a large mirror in a gold-leaf frame. The faded crimson dye of an Oriental rug is matched with wallpaper printed in gold and forest green.

The room, recreated by Hunt in vivid, meticulous detail, is an elaborate stage for the morality play at the center of the painting. A dandyish Victorian gentleman reclines in a chair while his mistress seems to contemplate escape from her gilded cage.

Hunt’s heavy-handed moralizing has aged about as well as the Victorians’ tastes in interior decorating. But he was a hit in his day, drawing crowds to his showings and leading a small revolution in painting in mid-1800s England.

Themes of morality and spirituality appear often in “Sin and Salvation: Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite Vision” at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA). Several of Hunt’s best-known works are making their first U.S. appearance in the exhibition.

It may be hard to see it today, but Hunt was a revolutionary in his time. His brightly colored, narrative-driven canvases challenged the art establishment.

In 1848, Hunt joined with fellow artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais to form the core of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. They looked back beyond the “old master” painters, taking their inspiration from medieval artists before Raphael.

They melded brilliant colors to unusual compositions, seeking a new kind of realism in painting. They were scrupulous observers of the natural world, but also loaded their paintings with symbolism.

It was a short-lived movement, but “Sin and Salvation” argues the Pre-Raphaelites had a long-lasting influence on art and literature.

The title of the exhibition also refers to Hunt’s spiritual awakening. His much-reproduced painting “The Light of the World” is a visual allegory for conversion, and Hunt experienced his own conversion while working on the image in 1854.

Later in his career, Hunt made several long pilgrimages to the Middle East, hoping to bring a new realism to paintings based on Biblical themes. “The Finding of the Savior in the Temple” is an exceptional example of this.

Hunt based the faces in a crowd of rabbis on Jewish men he met and sketched in Jerusalem. He captures the light reflecting off of white Jerusalem limestone with almost photographic intensity.

What is most interesting, though, is Hunt’s attention to the clothing his characters wear.

The son of a textile worker, Hunt had a particular eye for garments and reproduced them in stunning detail. The young Christ figure wears a robe painted in jewel-like tones of red and blue that shine on the canvas.

Hunt also dealt masterfully with the effects of light in paintings like “Our English Coasts.” As a flock of sheep grazes above a steep, rocky coastline, the rays of the afternoon sun are caught in their wooly coats.

All of Hunt’s powers were brought to bear on “The Lady of Shalott,” the masterpiece that closes the MIA exhibit.

Hunt based the painting on a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose heroine is locked in a castle during the reign of King Arthur. She records the goings-on of the outside world in the tapestries she weaves, but is only allowed to view the outdoors through its reflection in a mirror.

Hunt picks up the story at the moment she is finally tempted to peer through an open window by the passing reflection of Sir Lancelot. The act brings about a curse, and she dies just as Lancelot notices her and comments on her beauty.

In Hunt’s painting, the mirror is cracked. Colored threads fly up from the loom, entangling the Lady of Shalott. Her wild, wind-blown hair — another obsession of Hunt’s — fills the top of the image.

Hunt brings intense realism to the fantastic scene, with a flair that never goes out of style.

Go see it

“Sin and Salvation: William Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite Vision” runs through Sept. 6 in the Target Gallery at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. 870-6323.