William Holman Hunt's "The Awakening Conscience" & "Félicien Rops" Pornokrates.

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Symbolism, Gender Relationships & Sexual Hypocrisy in Victorian Art.

An examination of William Holman Hunt's The Awakening Conscience & Félicien Rops' Pornokrates.

Two works of art completed with in 25 years of each other but both portraying exceptionally different ideas and values of social morality and gender relationships. By examining William Holman Hunt's The Awakening Conscience[ ] and Félicien Rops' Pornokrates[ ] in relationship to the social and moral issues of the Victorian era, of which they were completed in, this essay seeks to identify the reasons for the difference in gender relationships portrayed in these art pieces.

Sexual and moral values are always changing. During the Enlightenment of the 1700's women enjoyed a time where they could attain power and property, they were not thought to be the same as men, they simply required that they be treated with the deference and respect that was their due as women[ ]. As time wore on and the Victorian era came about there was an incredible and distinct change in morals and values towards women. Women were now submissive and inferior to their male counterparts, dependant upon men to the point where a woman was considered the property of man. A popular subject that emerged across all art forms of this time was that of the Fallen Woman. This is clearly represented in the abundance of literature produced at the time portraying main female characters as Fallen[ ]. This view of women persisted until what is referred to by fashion historians as the late or high bustle period which began in the 1880's. Of course we first see the change in these standards among the lower classes but by the early 1900's the idea of women as Femme Fatale had gained popularity to the point where even respectable women would be portrayed as having powerful seductive qualities[ ].

William Holman Hunt's The Awakening Conscience presents us with a narrative 'to show how the still small voice speaks to a human soul in the turmoil of life'[ ]. As a text it allows the readers a glimpse into the contemporary moral issue of the Fallen Woman. The action in Hunt's composition is clear, he depicts a young couple who have been enjoying an afternoon in their villa. When the song that they are singing strikes a moral note with the kept woman, she attempts to renounce her seemingly ill-fated future. It is this moment in the narration Hunt chooses to portray, the act of renunciation.

The collection of symbolic objects found in the newly furnished parlour add to the moral of the kept woman. A bird is mauled by a cat under the table, tangled threads of embroidery wool lie on the floor, a semi-clad female is trapped under the bell-jar on the piano holding time in her arms, the score to Tennyson's Tears, Idle Tears lies abandoned on the carpet. Hunt's emphasis on the morally questionable nature of the relationship between the figures is shown by the girl's lack of a wedding ring, her provocative state of undress, and the lover's discarded and soiled glove, a warning that the likely fate of a cast-off mistress was that of prostitution. The cat is a straightforward type of the seducer, but the bird it has been tormenting has escaped. The web in which the girl is entrapped is symbolised by the tangled embroidery threads on the carpet. The message of Tears, Idle Tears, like that of Thomas Moore's Oft in the Stilly Night, which the man has been singing, contrasts past innocence with present wretchedness. The effect of this on the woman is emphasised by the frame design, the marigolds are emblems of sorrow, bells of warning, while the star at the top represents 'the still small voice' of spiritual revelation. The mirror has a crucial role in the composition, it reflects nature, seen through the French windows, presented as a mirror image. This symbolises the woman's lost innocence, from which she has removed herself by her present way of life[ ]. The ray of light in the right foreground suggests, however,...
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