How far would you go to make a painting? In an age when images are a few searches away, it’s difficult to imagine the efforts people used to go through merely to view images. (by the way, I am old enough to remember using the research library at the NYPL for..well.. research) .
Would you risk your life? Suffer sickness, be fired on by bandits? Holman Hunt, a 19th century British painter, encountered all that and more to create his masterpiece “The ScapeGoat”.
William Holman Hunt OM (2 April 1827 – 7 September 1910) was an English painter, and one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. A group of artists with a code of principals:
To have genuine ideas to express;
To study nature attentively, so as to know how to express them;
To sympathize with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote;
And most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.
For Hunt was a devout Christian and wanted to ““use my powers to make more tangible Jesus Christ’s history and teaching” , that meant if he wanted to paint a scene from the bible, he’d go where the event happened to paint it. So it was that in 1850, Holt left for the Holy Land.
Though the dangers were different, it was as unsafe in the 19th century as it is today. One could expect to encounter political turmoil, bandits, hostility to foreigners, and disease. ATMs, traveler’s checks, or even reliable guide books were more than a century away.
As with African expeditions, guides and porters were not always reliable, and danger lurked at every corner. Simply keeping ones wits was hard enough, trying to produce an extraordinary painting required exceptional drive and sense of purpose.
Hunt came to the Holy land to paint ‘authentic’ biblical scenes. He made numerous studies of the landscape to get accurate topographical and ethnographical material for further religious works.
He had great difficulty convincing locals to pose as models, and unexpected encounters, illness and other distractions quickly ate through his time and money. He was on the verge of leaving:
Home demands were pressing on me, and this led me to consider more seriously whether I should not own myself defeated and go back ere all my money had gone, and take up the home work which I had left off. There was delight in the idea of being again among art comrades, but I did not allow this to disturb my resolution to consider all my chances. In this frame of mind I bethought me of the subject of ” The Scapegoat,” which, in reading the books of Levitical rites, had struck my mind as one suited for Landseer. [his patron]
With this in mind, he hired porters and a guide and set out for a remote desert near the salt encrusted shallows of the Dead Sea. Only this bleak landscape could convey the sense of despair and suffering he wished to illustrate. The journey was a dangerous one, several times they ran into hostile bandits and tribes attempting to extort gifts and money. His typical work day involved equipment other than paint and brushes:
“I continued placidly conveying my paint from palette to canvas, steadying my touch by resting the hand on my double-barrelled gun.”
How many creative types today would be able to paint under the circumstances? I am sure that Hunt would have preferred to paint another way, but he did what had to be done. However, he clearly loved the nomadic life:
“I regard one who has not sojourned in a tent as not having thoroughly lived ; for without such experience how can a man feel what is his own relation to silent Nature”
Hunts risk taking and daring would reap rewards. To this day, his paintings are often revered for their authenticity, and ScapeGoat is one of the great works of 19th century English art. Hunt would return to the Holy Land an lived extensively in Jerusalem. Hunt’s account of his time in the Holyland, and his days as a struggling artist can be found here (archive.org free download).
Wikipedia on “The ScapeGoat”
Wikpedia on Holman Hunt.
Tags: artists, british, explorers