Monday, December 21, 2009

The Awakening Conscience

Although my mom was never really into art (she said that nude figures made her "embarrassed"), there are a couple of 19th century artists and artistic movements that she liked. It was my mom who first introduced me to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood when I was in high school (or perhaps a freshman in college?). She excitedly pulled me aside, held out a reproduction of The Awakening Conscience (1853, see left) and asked, "Have you heard of the artist William Holman Hunt?"

Mom liked Hunt's art because it was highly religious and moralistic. She liked The Awakening Conscience because it explored the theme of redemption. This painting depicts a prostitute or mistress who is sitting on the lap of her lover. They are playing the piano together, and it appears the lyrics of the song have pricked the conscience of the young woman. The painting captures this woman's precise moment of enlightenment and realization. I especially like looking at her expression and knowing that she is staring out an open window (which you can see reflected behind her in a mirror).

There are many moralizing references that are included in the painting. Here is a list of some objects which give clues to the story and moralistic tone of the painting:

- Music on the piano: "Oft in the Stilly Night" is a nostalgic song in which a the singer reflects upon childhood innocence and missed opportunities. (On a side note, this song is mentioned in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce - you can listen to the song by going here.)
- Music on the floor: "Tears, Idle Tears" is Edward Lear's musical adaption of Tennyson's poem. The sad poem seems to express sorrow over the woman's predicament. (You can read the poem here).
- Rings: The woman wears rings on all of her fingers except her "wedding finger."
- Hat and glove: The clothing objects are hastily cast aside, which indicates an abandonment of decorum. Because the hat is placed on the table, it shows that this man is a visitor and not a permanent resident in the house.
- Unraveled threads: A reference to the woman's wasted life.
- Cat and bird: The cat is chasing a small bird underneath the table. This vignette is a reference to the woman's predicament (the man = the cat, the woman = the bird).
- Light on the floor: Suggests enlightenment and potential redemption for the woman.

I especially like the inclusion of the cat and bird. Is there any specific object that you like?

The Awakening Conscience will forever remind me of my mother. Did a friend or relative ever introduce you to a work of art? Do you remember the experience?