Throughout his long career Holman Hunt championed the Pre-Raphaelite principle of uncompromising naturalism combined with serious subject matter. He produced a succession of highly original, complex pictures which display unprecedented effects of clarity and luminosity.
Overcoming initial opposition from his parents he had embarked on his serious training as a painter at the Royal Academy Schools in 1844, though he rejected the influence of its founder Sir Joshua Reynolds. As a young man he was profoundly impressed by the theories of John Ruskin expounded in Modern painters. These encouraged him in the belief that serious moral content could, through symbolism, be combined with absolute truth to nature.
In 1844 he met John Everett Millais and in 1848 Dante Gabriel Rossetti. By the end of the year the three artists (along with other friends including Rossetti’s brother William Michael) had formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In that year Hunt painted Study of a bloodhound 1848, a preparatory study for his Eve of Saint Agnes that he exhibited at the Royal Academy in the same year. Hunt sought Millais’ help to complete the picture, and Rossetti later turned to Hunt for help completing his Ecce Ancilla Domini 1850, the first work exhibited bearing the intials of the Brotherhood, PRB.
Hunt was the dominant personality of the pre-Raphaelite movement and the most loyal to its principles. A religious conversion in 1853 led him to travel to the near east (1854-56) so that he could paint the Holy Land from direct observation, a subject reflected in his prints The abundance of Egypt and The desolation of Egypt.
In 1865 Hunt married Fanny Waugh, but tragically she died in childbirth the following year while the couple were in Florence. In 1875 he married his late wife’s sister, Edith, travelling to Switzerland to seal a union which in England at that time would have been illegal. He made further trips to Jerusalem in 1869-72, 1875-78 and 1892, and there painted some of his major works.
Although his oeuvre was numerically small, those works he did produce won him exceptionally high prices and wide popularity. His Light of the world, painted in three versions, became probably the most celebrated religious painting of the 19th century. The picture was sent on a world tour in 1906 attracting massive crowds, particularly numerous at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Besides his work in oil, Hunt also designed book illustrations, left a brilliant corpus of watercolours and a number of fine portrait drawings. Many of his works have remarkable artist-designed frames.