Although they did not always approve of his intentions, many Victorian reviewers understood that Hunt employed elaborate pictorial symbolism. As the Art-Journal explained in its review of The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, "Mr. Hunt, like his admirer Mr. Ruskin, manifestly takes much pleasure in exercising his ingenuity in symbolic incidents, or mystical allusions" (22 , 182). The critic then provided examples of the painter's symbolism in this picture, but since he had the assistance of both Hunt's key-plate and Stephens's elaborate explanations, one cannot draw any conclusions about his interpretative skill. Certainly, when the critics did not have such exegetical aids, they encountered grave difficulties with the paintings of Hunt and his associates. The 1869 Art-Journal, which reluctantly granted that Hunt's The Birthday had "amazing power," commented upon what it took to be the painter's characteristically enigmatic manner: "The lady bears in her hands birthday-presents mournfully, as if under the burden of dark misgivings: thus, as usual, the artist is suggestive of some hidden meaning; and the spectator stands aghast in wonder — scarcely in admiration" (167). Of course, one can hardly blame the reviewer for being puzzled by the extremely personal allusions in this painting, which is in fact a portrait of Edith Waugh done not long after the death of her older sister Fanny, Hunt's first wife. According to family tradition, Edith bears some of her sister's possessions, and although Hunt did not marry her for many years, he already seems to have seen his first wife in a prefigurative relation to his second.
Hunt’s two versions of The Afterglow in Egypt. Left: The larger version painted between 1854-63 — Oil on canvas, arched top, 185.4 x 86.3 cm. Southampton City Art Gallery 1280; presented by Dr H. H. Clarke, 1946. Right: 82 x W 37 cm. The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
Nonetheless, contemporary criticism indicates that many of his contemporaries found themselves puzzled by Hunt's works even when there was no such personal reference. For instance, Ernest Chesneau's English School of Painting proclaimed The Afterglow in Egypt a particularly enigmatic, a quality he believed characteristic of much Pre-Raphaelite work (192. Chesneau's comments, quoted below, appear on 192-94). The French critic explained that Hunt's title inevitably led one to expect "an extensive Eastern landscape, subsiding into shadowy twilight, whilst overhead the pale sky is lighted by the last gleams of the setting sun, which has just sunk below the horizon." To his surprise he found "nothing of the kind in Mr. Hunt's work. A female figure forms his subject, some woman of noble birth, perphaps a wife of Pharaoh." He then wonders: "Is she a daughter of the Nile? or is she not rather some goddess of harvest, an Egyptian Ceres?" Proceeding on this last supposition, he offers an attractive reading of the picture as an emblem of the "affluence of Nature," but he immediately doubts this interpretation, and from this doubt he draws conclusions about the iconographically puzzling quality of Pre-Raphaelite art. "The Pre-Raphaelites," he tells us, "involve themselves in such subtleties that one can never feel certain of their meaning." Admitting himself haunted by The Afterglow, he turns back to it to find another "solution of the enigma":
Princess and goddess, both have faded; and I am in the presence of the personification of modern Egypt. In the dull, black eyes, as frigid and lustreless as a lifeless coal; in the ominous stillness, and in these trappings suitable to a slave or a courtesan, I find a symbol of Egypt, deposed from the splendour of her ancient civilisation, and fallen from her high, intellectual culture, with nothing left to her but what the fertility of soil, the waters of the Nile and bountiful Nature continue to lavish upon her. Why does she turn her back to the river? except, indeed, it be to avert her gaze from the colossal remains of her former power lying ruined on the banks. Steadfast and gloomy, she stands under the weight of the heavy corn; steadfast and lifeless as a block of granite; her life has sunk to an animal, vegetating existence, with perhaps, in the far depths of her soul, a sparkle, a gleam of her former state.
Leaving to his reader to find other solutions to "this problem," Chesneau charges that the "fault of this emblematic and ideal style of painting" is that "it possesses the slight defect of being at times unintelligible, or, what comes to the same thing, it may bear as many contradictory interpretations as there are interpreters." He stresses the deadness and lack of life in the figure, which is, in fact, quite sparkling with life, thus demonstrating Gombrich's view that interpretations of expression tend to fit prior interpretations of meaning. Of course, what is at issue here is not Chesneau's various interpretations of the painting — all of which, incidentally, Hunt denied (See Landow, "'As unreserved as a studio chat.'") — but the way this sympathetic and often ingenious critic found himself unsure how to approach a work he took to be characteristic of Pre-Raphaelitism.
The iconography of Pre-Raphaelite painting long puzzled the native critics as well, and not only when the painter's allusions were intensely personal. In its hostile review of Millais's exquisite Autumn Leaves at the 1856 Royal Academy the Art-Journal mockingly inquired:
In what vein of mystic poetry will the picture be read? The artist awaits the assignment of the usual lofty attributes. The work is got up for the new transcendentalism, its essences are intensity and simplicity, and those who yield not to the penetration are insensible to Fine Art . . . We are curious to learn the mystic interpretation that will be put upon this composition. 
The reviewer's confidence that Autumn Leaves was a painting without meaning "got up" for a fraudulent "new transcendentalism" is merely one of the more hostile comments upon Pre-Raphaelite iconography. The Art-Journal's comment that the painter "awaits the assignment of the usual lofty attributes" clearly refers to Ruskin, and therefore much of the critic's animus was directed not so much at Millais himself as at those admirers of the Brotherhood who would take this painting "as an essential sign of the divine afflatus" (171). About this time the Art-Journal was conducting a particularly vigorous campaign against Ruskin [see note at left], for whose iconographical readings of contemporary and earlier painting the editors apparently had particular dislike. One especially violent attack was directed specifically at his typological interpretation of Tintoretto's Annunciation.. Nonetheless, despite the influence of art-politics, the critic's puzzlement when confronted by Pre-Raphaelite symbolism was genuine. Writers for the Art-Journal, like many other contemporary writers and reviewers, simply did not feel comfortable with these pictures, because they found them so continually puzzling and so essentially enigmatic.
So many Victorian critics found these works confusing because, as Hunt recognized at the beginning of his career, the old iconographic traditions, the old "art-languages," were moribund. However much reviewers at mid-century resisted realistic styles of painting, their basic conceptions of art were in basic accord with realism, and as Kermit Champa has pointed out in Studies in Early Impressionism (1973), "Realism inevitably emphasizes the visual importance of the image itself and isolates it from whatever literary values it may hope to convey. Realism ruptures the balance between literary and formal intention that stands as the highest ideal in Western painting from Giotto to Delacroix" (1). What was so ambitious about Pre-Raphaelite painting was that it tried to maintain that traditional balance while yet moving closer to a pure visual realism. Hunt, more than any of his associates, tried to implement such a program throughout his entire career, relying upon typology as the source and inspiration of his major works. Even he had continual difficulties with such a conception of art, and one of the most painful parts of his correspondence appears in his attempts to explain that works which friends took to be symbolical were realistic, while those they took to be realistic were symbolical. Working without a living iconographic tradition, he continually created works which puzzled his contemporaries, because they did not know how to approach them.
The cause of his difficulties — and ours — was, as I have suggested, the triumph of realism and the attitudes on which such a conception of art is based. Nonetheless, we must recognize that William Holman Hunt was not quite the anomaly that such an historical over-view might suggest, for, in fact, we encounter a significant number of other nineteenth-century painters also engaged to revivify the symbolic potential of the visual arts. In the United States, for example, one finds Frederic Edwin Church, another artist influenced by Ruskin, who tried to endow his landscapes of both Americas with intricate political and other significances, resorting, like Hunt, to elaborate exhibition pamphlets. Earlier in the century there was Caspar David Friedrich in Germany, who, if Borsch-Supan's interpretations are correct, tried to work out an elaborate, and almost completely inaccessible personal symbolism.
As the recent works of Patricia Allderidge and David Greysmith have shown, in England there was also Richard Dadd, who combined a hallucinatory, hard-edge style with elaborate and often unintelligible symbolism. Indeed, as Allderidge points out, one of his most fascinating works, The Flight out of Egypt (1849-50), seems to combine a prefigurative allusion to the Holy Family with the events of an earlier time (82-83). Dadd's madness and his arcane beliefs naturally make any interpretation difficult, but it does seem plausible that the apparently irreconcilable activities function, like Hunt's, as part of a typological emblem. Turning to a much greater work, one perceives in Courbet's The Painter's Studio: A Real Allegory (1855) another attempt, like Hunt's, to retain a balance between realism, formal qualities, and symbolism. It is indicative of the degree to which iconographic traditions had been lost that Courbet's subtitle, A Real Allegory, should have so long remained puzzling to students of his work.
What this perhaps bizarre congeries of nineteenth-century painters should suggest, I hope, is that there co-existed with, and sometimes within, the dominantly realistic tradition important attempts, like Hunt's, to create effective modern iconographies. Hunt and his Pre-Raphaelite associates drew largely upon typological symbolism for their chief inspiration, but their religious sources should not blind us to the fact that they take their place in a much broader attempt to reconcile realism and symbolism.
Created December 2001 Last modified 31 October 2020