William Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelites’ colour palettes

Any artist who has been hit by rejection or criticism of their work could do worse than take heart from the experiences of the Pre-Raphaelites. This group of young idealistic and skilled painters received a damning review as their works became better known. The Times concluded: “Their faith seems to consist in an absolute contempt for perspective and the known laws of light and shade, an aversion to beauty in every shape, and a singular devotion to the minute accidents of their subjects, including, or rather seeking out, every excess of sharpness and deformity.” But the group stood firm in their beliefs and it was this unflinching devotion to their cause that allowed one of their founding members, William Holman Hunt, to play an instrumental part in the drive to provide modern, permanent colours that artists could trust.

Looking back to move forward

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were opposed to the “grand style” advocated by Sir Joshua Reynolds, the founder of the Royal Academy. This style had been developed from the Renaissance masters, Michelangelo and Raphael. Reynolds’ palette was subdued and included bitumen, which was highly unstable and prone to shrink and wrinkle. The Pre-Raphaelites favoured a return to pictorial detail and the intense, bright colours of early Renaissance masters like Andrea Mantegna. To achieve this intensity of colour, the Pre-Raphaelites painted on opaque grounds prepared with zinc white. They copied Venetian masters such as Titian, laying colours on in thin glazes and barely mixing the paint, making for maximum luminosity.

The Hireling Shepherd by William Holman Hunt
Holman Hunt, The Hireling Shepherd, 1851, oil on canvas Courtesy of Manchester City Art Gallery


Faith in God and himself

Hunt was keen to use his art as a vehicle for his Anglican faith, going as far as to travel to the holy land in the mid 1850s to find authentic references for future religious works. An avant-garde, Hunt almost certainly developed his landscapes en plein air well ahead of the Impressionists. Paintings such as The Hireling Shepherd would not have been developed from sketches alone, but would probably have been started outside in Surrey, and then been finished at his studio in London.

A summer scene with a serious message

The hireling shepherd is showing the young woman a death’s head moth while his sheep stray into a cornfield. Hunt compared the shepherd to the clergy of the time, neglecting their flock in favour of high-blown ideals. This way of using painting to depict allegories challenged modern manners, and the portrayal of authentic country people upset London audiences, who found them coarse. But disturbing as it was to some, the intensity of colour and the capturing of light falling on nature impressed critics such as John Ruskin.

A colour crusader

With a strong interest in materials, Hunt corresponded with the eminent colourman George Field about the permanence of colours, which Hunt used as unmixed as possible – a technique recommended by Field. Hunt also became a crusader for the proper testing of colours. A book by Field on artists’ colours prompted Hunt to write to Winsor & Newton in June 1880 with the following endorsement: “Careful examination of the question has not failed to convince me that your house approaches more closely than any to the standard of perfection which I desire to see reached in the source from which artists get their materials.”

Ancient beliefs but modern methods

Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelites sought the bright, prismatic colours of the early Renaissance and depicted subjects that belonged to mythology, religion and poetry. They can be seen as ideologically opposed to the industrial revolution and in favour of a medieval “rusticism”. Yet, ultimately, the paradox is that the Pre-Raphaelites’ palette was full of the pigments developed by modern chemistry: cobalt blue, chromium oxide, zinc yellow and emerald green. Like many great artists before and since, the Pre-Raphaelites displayed amazing creativity full of contrasts and contradictions.

Philip Ball, Bright Earth, the Invention of Colour, Viking, London, 2001.
The Times, Saturday May 3, 1851, page 8

Pre-Raphaelite paintings in public collections include:
Tate Britain, Millbank, London
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Chamberlain Square, Birmingham
Manchester Art gallery, Mosley Street, Manchester
Ashmolean Museum, Beaumont Street, Oxford