The Afterglow in Egypt
William Holman Hunt
Holman Hunt belonged to a group of English painters, know as The Pre-Raphaelites. They adopted this name because they admired the work of medieval artists before Raphael and disliked much of the work which came after. Hunt, however, did not imitate the style of the early artists but took nature as his model. He painted his subjects in bright, natural colours and in painstaking detail, following the advice of the critic, John Ruskin, who had urged artists to reject handed-down ideas and paint only what they could see in the world around them. The Ashmolean owns a number of works by Hunt, including one of his first paintings in this style, A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary, in which the kindness of the Christian family is contrasted with the barbaric ferocity of the pagans in the background. Hunt had strong religious beliefs and used his art to spread the Gospel message. His best-known painting, The Light of the World (now in Keble College, Oxford), is a sermon in paint. Hunt painted the background in the open air at night in November and December 1851, seated in an orchard in Surrey. Hunts concern for authenticity made it difficult for him to paint Biblical subjects without visiting Biblical sites. To remedy this, he left England in January 1854 and spent two years in the Near East, studying the places where the events of the Bible are set.
On arrival in Egypt in 1854, Hunt began work on a painting of an Egyptian girl, returning from the fields not far from the pyramids at Giza. This painting is now in the Art Gallery in Southampton. The Ashmolean picture, painted in London in the early 1860s, is a second version of the original. Hunt made a number of changes when he painted this later version, placing a bird cage on the head of the girl in place of the sheaf of corn which she carries in the original and adding a brown calf in the foreground. As Hunt made these changes in England, he used an English calf of a kind which would have been out of place on the banks of the Nile, unaware, it seems of an error which would, perhaps, have upset him more than it does us if it had been pointed out at the time.