How to Read Paintings: The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt

The rise of female power

Christopher P Jones
6 min readOct 13, 2022


The Awakening Conscience (1853) by William Holman Hunt. Oil on canvas. 76.2 × 55.9 cm. Tate Britain, London, UK. Image source Wikimedia Commons

This is a memorable painting by any standard. Just look at the rich setting and detailed paintwork, not to mention the curious gestures of the two protagonists.

It is also something of a puzzle. Notice first the wide array of objects that suggest an underlying meaning: the cat beneath the table toying with a bird, the unfinished tapestry hanging from the leg of the piano — its threads spilling onto the floor below — the single discarded glove at the woman’s feet, the scroll of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s 1847 poem “Tears, Idle Tears” dropped onto the floor (it has been arranged into a musical score by Edward Lear), the clock on the piano top covered in a glass dome, even the ray of light in the bottom-right corner…

All these details — and more besides — are laden with symbolic intent. But what message is the artist, the Pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt, trying to tell us?

Detail of ‘The Awakening Conscience’ (1853) by William Holman Hunt. Oil on canvas. 76.2 × 55.9 cm. Tate Britain, London, UK. Image source Wikimedia Commons

The central motif of the painting is, of course, the woman. She is seen standing up from the man’s lap, her attention spontaneously caught by the view through the open door in front of her — which the artist makes visible to us through a mirror.

We might at first imagine them to be a married couple, but the rings on the woman’s left hand reveal the conspicuous absence of a wedding band.

The couple represents a mistress and her lover. The rich setting is a “maison de convenance” — a house where a man would install his extra-marital woman.

For the house, Hunt hired a room at Woodbine Villa, 7 Alpha Place, St John’s Wood. The Victorian art critic John Ruskin noted the deliberately “common, modern, vulgar” interior, decorated with bright wallpaper and lustrous furniture made of rosewood, too cluttered and grand to be a contemporary family home.

Once we understand this, the way the woman stands up from the man’s lap is more easily seen as a sign that she wants to be released from her kept status. Through the doors to the bright outside she has “seen the…