The Pre-Raphaelites, 1848, a group of English artists got together to challenge the "emptiness of High Art and the precedence given to Raphael." They sought a fresh moral conscience to painting and to take precise observation of nature as their standard, rather than the style of the Old Masters. William Holman Hunt was a founder.
The Awakening Conscience is a fine example of popular Victorian painting. It tells a story. Its theme is the fate of the fallen woman. This is a genre scene, depicting a contemporary domestic interior that comments of the society of the day. Many details are intended to be read symbolically. The moral message is stern and strongly disapproving.
To achieve the greatest possible visual accuracy Hunt rented a villa in St. John's Wood, North London, an area where rich men housed their mistresses. His model was Annie Miller, his girl friend.
Hunt responded to the challenge of photography and the production of bright, new synthetic colors created for the cloth industry by using the new colors extensively and filling his canvas with detailed accuracy.
[The analysis will be by quadrants of the painting beginning in the upper right quadrant and reading clockwise.]
Upper Right Quadrant
(1)Sleeping Cupid - wall paper - "The corn and wine are left unguarded by the slumbering Cupid watchers, and the fruit is left to be preyed on by the thievish birds." (WH Hunt) Hunt implies that women must guard their chastity as a farmer guards his crops.
(2) Nostalgic song - found on the piano - "Oft in the Stilly Night" is a song about a woman reflecting on her childhood innocence. Words of the song have stung the woman's conscience.
(3) Cupid bound - clock decorated with the image of Chastity binding Cupid (god of love), which suggests that the gentleman will not have his "wicked" way. The picture on the wall shows the biblical story of the women taken into adultery.
(4) Flowers of deceit - flowers in the vase on the piano are the morning glory, which tangles itself with other plants. It symbolized the embroiled and complicated relationship of the woman. Tangled skeins of wool at the feet of the piano imply the same thing.
Lower right quadrant
(5) Rings of fingers - Young woman shows her hands. There's a ring on every finger except the "wedding finger". She is a kept woman, entirely dependent on the support and whim of the man. If he rejects her, she is likely to resort to prostitution in order to survive.
(6) Posture - She's at the point of rising from her lover's lap - at the precise point when her conscience is awakened. Her lover is sing and playing the piano, oblivious to her transformation
(7) Glove - soiled, discarded white glove on the floor symbolizes the woman's fate if she stays with her lover.
Lower left quadrant
(8) "Tears Idle Tears" - music on the floor - Edward Lear's musical adaptation of a poem by Tennyson, contrasting past innocence with present wretchedness. Like the music on the piano, it indicates sorrow over the woman's present predicament.
(9) Artist's initials and date - in the lower left corner - in the opposite comer is a shaft of light, falling on the foot of the piano, symbolic of the girl's salvation; strands of wool becoming unraveled from the tapestry is a symbol of her current state, which could well have been her undoing.
(10) Cat & bird - The cat under the table plays with the bird. There could be a double meaning here: (a) cat = man; bird = mistress (b) bird seems to have escaped the grasp of the cat, suggesting her salvation.
(11) Hat and book - the hat on the table says the man is a visitor and not a permanent resident. The black bound book indicates Hunt's plan to educate Annie Miller who was barely literate.
Upper Left quadrant
(12) Victorian gentleman - the young man, well dressed and well-to-do, visiting his mistress whom he "lodges" in a comfortable modern house. He visits when he pleases. She is in a state of undress; lace-hemmed garment is her slip.
(13) Changing expression - first owner of the painting had Hunt repaint girl's expression because it was too painful to look at. Girl's face illuminated by the light from the window, which appears in the mirror.
(14) - "Light of the World" - girl stares out the window at the sunlit garden reflected in the mirror. "Light of the World" is the title of this painting's companion piece. Light represents her salvation. White roses in the garden represent purity.
Hunt exhibited the picture with an elaborately decorated frame which he designed himself. It contained appropriate emblems, such as marigolds symbolizing sorrow, and bells representing danger. It also included a quotation, "As he that taken away a garment in cold weather, so is he that singeth songs to a heavy heart." He cited this as his inspiration.
The painting demonstrates the other side of Victorian English life, that not open to polite society, that which was discussed in Gentlemen's Clubs, but certainly not at home. Imperialism had opened the world to men and their whims. They lived a life of adventure, of money and opportunity, all things not yet open to women. Confined and kept home a woman was not even free enough to venture out to obtain the paper to look for a job. Alcoholism was rampant (is there a connection to Freud?), but so is the temperance movement which is supported by women who see the evil and hopelessness of their plight. The AP European History student should not only look at the painting as art, but should see its connections to the activities of the era.
The analysis of this painting may be found in Robert Cumming's Annotated Art , DK Publishing, 1995.