William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), Pre-Raphaelite painter, was a founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and one of the most significant artists of the Victorian age. He was born at Cheapside, London in 1827, the son of a warehouseman. His original employment was as an assistant to a surveyor, and later as an assistant to the London agent of Richard Cobden. Finding these employments uncongenial, Hunt studied art privately, before going to the Royal Academy as a student in 1844. Here he met John Everett Millais, already known as a precocious talent. Hunt began to exhibit at the Academy and his Flight of Madeline and Porphyrus aroused the interest of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who had been working under the artist Ford Madox Brown. In 1848, Hunt, Millais and Rossetti established the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (the title was not formally adopted until a year later). Hunt has been considered to be the moving spirit in this movement, which was later joined by the artists Thomas Woolner, James Collinson, W.M. Rossetti and F.G. Stephens. In 1849 Hunt painted his first 'Pre-Raphaelite' painting, Rienzi, and in 1850 produced a journal for the movement called The Germ.
Hunt's work came to public attention when he exhibited Christians escaping from Druid Persecution in 1850, which proved controversial. The early 1850s were difficult for Hunt as he met with great hostility from sections of the artistic establishment; he considered giving up art for farming, and was forced to work by restoring and copying old masters. However his Valentine rescuing Sylvia from Proteus found a champion in John Ruskin, who remained a life-long friend, and in 1852 Hunt exhibited The Hireling Shepherd, which won widespread acclaim. Two important paintings of 1854, The Awakened Conscience and The Light of the World demonstrated the strong spiritual principles which were a feature of Hunt's work. In the same year Hunt fulfilled a long-held ambition to travel to the Holy Land in order to study and sketch sacred subjects in their actual surroundings. He began work on The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, which was completed six years later, and The Scapegoat, one of his best-known paintings. In 1856 he provided six designs for an illustrated edition of Tennyson's poems, one of which, The Lady of Shalott, he painted in oil many years later. In 1866 Hunt began a new journey to the Near East, but was forced to stop at Florence because of a cholera outbreak. Hunt's wife, whom he married in 1865, died at Florence, but he stayed on in Italy, painting and visiting major artistic centres. He finally reached Palestine in 1869, where he took a house in Jerusalem and began work on The Shadow of the Cross. He later returned to Jerusalem in 1875, staying for two and a half years to work on Nazareth, overlooking Esdraelon and The Triumph of the Innocents, which he completed in 1885. He made a final trip to Palestine in 1892.
Hunt had talents in a number of areas: he was a skilled furniture maker, whose work influenced William Morris, as well as a talented model-maker and an accomplished writer. He contributed several articles on the Pre-Raphaelites to the periodical press and to Chambers's Encyclopaedia. In 1905 he published a two volume work Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a history of his own life and of his associates. Hunt was unsuccessful in an application to join the Royal Academy as an associate in 1856, and he never lost his antipathy to that institution. In response, he set up the Hogarth Club for artists denied official recognition. In 1905 Hunt was admitted to the Order of Merit. He was twice married and had three children. He died at his home in Kensington in 1910.
Hunt was considered to be the only member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who remained true to its principles of artistic sincerity and simplicity. Hunt's paintings were distinguished by their precise detail, a strong use of colour, striking imagery, and a clear didactic purpose. The moral earnestness of his work proved highly popular with Victorian audiences.
Source: Judith Bronkhurst, 'Hunt, William Holman (1827-1910)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. By permission of Oxford University Press -'http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/34058.