The paintings in Sin and Salvation are awash in vibrant color. More than a century after most of them were finished, they leap out of the canvas, with their depictions of rustic landscapes, biblical scenes, and Victorian living rooms.
"One art historian famously said 'It's as though your eyelids are pinned open,'" says Carol Jacobi, who's studied William Holman Hunt for years, and clearly loves his work. "The paintings are incredibly compelling; they force you to look at them."
Jacobi leads a group through the galleries, passing some of the most famous pictures of the Victorian age. There is "The Light of the World," an image of Christ in the moonlight, holding a lantern. It went on a world tour and was seen by 7 million people. There is "The Scapegoat" and "The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple" which, in 1866, sold for 5,500 pounds sterling. At the time, it was most ever paid for a painting by a living artist. This is the first time it has been shown in the U.S. Hunt was a product of his age. A Londoner, living at the birth of the industrial revolution who Jacobi says saw himself as an artist and a scientist.
"In the 19th century, everything is up for grabs, everything is being questioned, everything is being redefined," says Jacobi.
Including the very notions of painting. As an art student William Holman Hunt chafed against the artistic conventions of the time. They followed strict formulas, and often involved actual copying of old masters.
Hunt and six other disaffected painters and writers formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. It was a secret society dedicated to principles which were to revolutionize 19th century art.
"The basic premise of this style was, instead of copying and using a formula for painting things, they would actually paint everything from life," says Jacobi.
Not only did the Pre-Raphaelites use real people as models, they would travel to paint real places. Their pictures vibrated with realism. It's hard to fathom now, but Jacobi says members of the public were scandalized.
"They were particularly shocked when the Pre-Raphaelites painted famous people such as the holy family as ordinary looking people," she says.
She says the controversy almost ruined their careers. However, the work was so spectacularly beautiful and compelling it became hugely popular. Hunt traveled to the Holy Land to paint and the work he produced caused a sensation amongst a public which had at best seen black and white photographs of Jerusalem.
Carol Jacobi leads the group to a painting of an Egyptian woman carrying a water jar. It's called "The Afterglow in Egypt." Jacobi points to some brown pigeons around the woman's feet. She says researchers have examined these birds under a microscope and discovered the brown color is made up of tiny brushstrokes of brilliant blue, yellow and red.
"He's painting with these bright brushstrokes, like an impressionist but on a tiny, tiny miniature scale," she says.
This was a decade before the impressionists popularized the technique. Hunt's pictures could take years to finish and Jacobi says they often tell stories through their symbolism and tiny detail.
"The paintings turn you into a kind of Sherlock Holmes type character where you're finding clues in every corner and going deeper and deeper into the narrative with every clue," she says.
This is particularly true of the portraits he painted of the women in his life. There are two pictures in the show of Annie Millar, a penniless young woman who Hunt found living in a pub in London. He fell for her, and wanted to marry. Yet he also felt it was unfair of him as an established man to make the offer until she was similarly settled. He arranged for lodging and tutors, and began using her as a model. Jacobi points out a picture called "Il Dolce far Niente," which began as what he hoped would be an engagement picture of Miller.
"I think this is a very sad painting in a way, because it was Hunt's fantasy which didn't come to pass," she says. "While he was painting this they broke up. And so actually the face you see is not Annie's, the face that you see is the face of the woman that he finally did marry."
That woman was Fanny Waugh, who was independently wealthy. They fell in love and married, but she died soon after giving birth to their son, Cyril, on a trip to the Holy Land.
Hunt was devastated, and Jacobi says his later picture of Christ, called the "Shadow of Death" can also be read as a hope he will meet Fanny again in the afterlife. The MIA show also contains pictures of Fanny's sister, Edith, who took care of the young Cyril. Hunt eventually fell in love with her, but in England it was illegal for a man to marry his widow's sister. They eventually wed 10 years later in Switzerland.
Carol Jacobi originally co-curated "Sin and Salvation" for the Manchester Art Gallery in England last year. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts show, which runs through Labor Day, is the only stop in the United States.
Jacobi says she enjoys seeing how a show looks different in every venue it is displayed.
Yet surprisingly she admits she wouldn't want a William Holman Hunt painting in her home.
"Because his pictures are troubled," she says. "I think they are troubled in a similar way to the way Van Gogh's pictures are troubled. They both were troubled by the contrast between the way they way they wished life was and how it actually is, and both those things come together in the pictures."
Carol Jacoby will lecture on William Holman Hunt at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts at 2 p.m. on Sunday.
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