"As he that taketh away a garment in cold weather, so is he that singeth songs to an heavy heart.” (Proverbs) Inscribed on the frame of this painting as directed by the artist.
|The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (1851-53)|
Oft in the stilly night
When slumber’s chain has bound me,
Fond memories bring the light
Of other days around me.
She’s in a mess; look at the tangled threads, bottom right of the painting. Can she learn a lesson and act on the awakening conscience? She has been ‘caught’ as surely as the the sparrow beneath the cat’s paw and is trapped, probably condemned to a life of prostitution once he has discarded her, as easily as his glove, which lays at her feet. The garden reminds her of her innocent past and the light suggests possible salvation.
John Hadfield in 'Every Picture Tells a Story’ tells us that this room, chosen as setting for the cautionary tale, is Woodbine Villa, 7 Alpha Place, St John’s Wood - an area renowned for its maisons de covenance.
“The gentleman’s features , dress and gestures are self-explanatory, and almost every detail in the room drips with sexual and moral innuendo. The girl’s lack of a wedding ring is obvious, as is also her provocative state of undress”
“The girl’s open lips and dilated eyes reveal the ‘awakening conscience’, which is symbolised by the French clock bearing a design in which Cupid is bound by chastity, and by the mirror, which reflects an idylllic scene outside the window.”
Hadfield tells us that this painting, more than any other of its period, expresses the mid-Victorian fascination with, and revulsion from, sexual irregularity.
“It might also be regarded as a characteristic expression of Victorian hypocrisy, since the model who posed with such a touching air of repentance, lived with the artist as his mistress for several years.”
Our Sepia Saturday prompt this week was a piano player and his female companion in a parlour full of detail, not dissimilar to the one in the painting. There is no suggestion that the woman in the prompt is the pianist’s lover, and I don’t think the room has been set out to be read as an allegory, rather an accident of arrangement. However, there are pictures within a picture and who knows whether these are hinting at some hidden meaning?
Contrast the Hunt painting with one by the Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer in about 1670-72. Vermeer painted many variations on the theme of a woman seated or standing at the Virginal. What could be more innocent? The very name of the instrument suggesting the purity of the female musician. In this example, in The National Gallery, London, we also have a picture within the picture. this time we have Cupid holding a card, symbolising faithfulness to one lover, or the traditional association of music and love.
|A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal by Johannes Vermeer 1670-72|
For more music lessons and pictures full of meaning, hidden or otherwise, visit the art gallery that is Sepia Saturday and see what other contributors made of the prompt.