The Awakening Conscience

Although my mom was never really into art (she said that nude figures made her “embarrassed”), there are a couple of 19th century artists and artistic movements that she liked. It was my mom who first introduced me to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood when I was in high school (or perhaps a freshman in college?). She excitedly pulled me aside, held out a reproduction of The Awakening Conscience (1853, see left) and asked, “Have you heard of the artist William Holman Hunt?”

Mom liked Hunt’s art because it was highly religious and moralistic. She liked The Awakening Conscience because it explored the theme of redemption. This painting depicts a prostitute or mistress who is sitting on the lap of her lover. They are playing the piano together, and it appears the lyrics of the song have pricked the conscience of the young woman. The painting captures this woman’s precise moment of enlightenment and realization. I especially like looking at her expression and knowing that she is staring out an open window (which you can see reflected behind her in a mirror).

There are many moralizing references that are included in the painting. Here is a list of some objects which give clues to the story and moralistic tone of the painting:

– Music on the piano: “Oft in the Stilly Night” is a nostalgic song in which a the singer reflects upon childhood innocence and missed opportunities. (On a side note, this song is mentioned in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce – you can listen to the song by going here.)
– Music on the floor: “Tears, Idle Tears” is Edward Lear’s musical adaption of Tennyson’s poem. The sad poem seems to express sorrow over the woman’s predicament. (You can read the poem here).
– Rings: The woman wears rings on all of her fingers except her “wedding finger.”
– Hat and glove: The clothing objects are hastily cast aside, which indicates an abandonment of decorum. Because the hat is placed on the table, it shows that this man is a visitor and not a permanent resident in the house.
– Unraveled threads: A reference to the woman’s wasted life.
– Cat and bird: The cat is chasing a small bird underneath the table. This vignette is a reference to the woman’s predicament (the man = the cat, the woman = the bird).
– Light on the floor: Suggests enlightenment and potential redemption for the woman.

I especially like the inclusion of the cat and bird. Is there any specific object that you like?

The Awakening Conscience will forever remind me of my mother. Did a friend or relative ever introduce you to a work of art? Do you remember the experience?

  • heidenkind says:

    This painting always creeped me out for some reason. It's just such a seedy subject when you think about it–but then it's also an example of how the PRBs regarded the women in their lives, as potentially redeemable "birds."

    I'm not sure my family introduced me to any artists per se. My mom is definitely responsible for taking me to museums and making me watch Sister Wendy, which is really what got me interested in art and art history in first place.

  • Hels says:

    I am also peeved by Holman Hunt painting a beautifully detailed and well observed interior called "The Awakening Conscience". The MAN grabbed her bum and made it difficult for her to retain her dignity, yet it appears as if it is HER conscience that is being awoken.

    From his letters we know Holman Hunt was not supporting the double standard.. he may have even been attacking it. But you cannot tell that from the painting itself.

    My favourite bit is the light in the bottom right hand corner. A rather dark, overly fussy Victorian salon will soon be flooded with beautiful sunshine.

  • M says:

    Thanks for your comments, heidenkind and Hels. I think that you both have great points. I remember being struck by the seedy-ish and downright unusual subject matter when my mom first showed me the painting. (Doesn't the man look like a creep?) Personally, though, I think that the moralistic message of redemption and hope outshines the seedy circumstances (and maybe I feel that way because my mom felt that way).

    I also agree that the painting can be interpreted as chauvinistic/sexist/condescending towards women. There is an apparent double standard. But I think you're right, Hels: Hunt was a very religious man and his writings don't indicate that he approved of a double standard. I wonder if the double standard in this painting is apparent to post-Suffrage viewers, but it would not have been considered by Victorian viewers?

  • GermyB says:

    It seems to me that the "seedy subject" is essential to the point he's making – the woman is realizing that she needs to change. Also, I think we have to assume that the woman wasn't an unwilling participant in what was going on – hence the "awakening conscience". I don't see how Hunt is supporting a double-standard in this painting – anyone seeing this painting is going to think that the man is doing something wrong/immoral. The fact that the woman is seeing the light, so-to-speak, speaks more favorably of the woman than the man.

  • e says:

    My mom really liked Lladro.

    I'm, generally speaking, not into figurine-type things, but I think her influence made me always feel differently about Lladro.

    I like that Lladro has a classier feel to it, that it is from Spain, and that it's simple but detailed at the same time.

    When my mom died, all my siblings and I got one piece from her collection. Many of the pieces had a great deal of emotional significance for my mom, which probably adds to why I think Lladro is nice. The piece I chose from her collection wasn't a piece that had a great deal of emotional meaning to it — for example, she had pieces that represented motherhood and certain beautiful things to her — but the piece I got was one that I helped her pick out a long time ago. So, it reminds me of a day a long time ago that I spent alone with her shopping.

    This post has inspired me, M. The piece I inherited has been sitting in storage for years. I always have said I'd display it once I had my own house, my own china cabinet, etc., etc. I can now see how ridiculous that is. The years are flying by and it's time for it to be up.

    Anyway, I know that isn't a painting or anything, but it certainly qualifies as art, right?

  • M says:

    GermyB, you bring up a whole bunch of good points. I like that you argued that the painting speaks more favorably of the woman than the man. I would prefer to think of the painting this way (although I also can see how the painting can be interpreted in a sexist light).

    That's fun about your mom and Lladro, e. I know what you mean about how your mom's influence has affected how you feel about Lladro. I think I would like William Holman Hunt (and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) even without my mom's influence, but I especially like their art because of my mom.

    (And I think you should pull that piece out of storage!)

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.