In Focus: How Holman Hunt’s Lady of Shallot was inspired by Van Eyck’s greatest masterpiece

Holman Hunt was one of several pre-Raphaelites inspired by Jan Van Eyck's iconic The Arnolfini Portrait. Lilias Wigan takes an in-depth look at the painting, which is part of a new exhibition at the National Gallery.

Sometimes, a single artist can inspire an entirely new movement. And sometimes it only takes one picture.

Such was the case with Jan Van Eyck’s painstakingly detailed The Arnolfini Portrait (1434), acquired by The National Gallery in 1842, and the inspiration behind the gallery’s new exhibition,  Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites.

The artist’s use of the reflective convex mirror in this picture drew particular fascination among the Pre-Raphaelites, affirming his unprecedented skill as a painter and offering many possibilities for interpretation. All this coincided with the invention of photography and a new appreciation of realism and sharp focus.

The Arnolfini Portrait - by Jan van Eyck, 1434

The Arnolfini Portrait – by Jan van Eyck, 1434

By 1848, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, three aspiring students at the Royal Academy Schools (which then shared a building with the National Gallery), had become disenchanted with the sterile teachings of High Renaissance art. They wanted to express ‘genuine ideas’ and to ‘sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art’, and so they founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and developed what at the time was considered a radical artistic movement.

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Favouring the work of Italian and Netherlandish artists ‘pre-Raphael’, they found that The Arnolfini Portrait upheld many of their artistic ambitions. This exhibition explores the influence of Van Eyck’s portrait on their work, and how they used reflection as a device to develop their objectives.

Drawn to themes from religion, literature and medieval legend, the Pre-Raphaelites were particularly taken by The Lady of Shallot. Holman Hunt was the most deeply inspired by the tale’s psychological drama. In his painting of c.1886–1905 (below), lent by Manchester Art Gallery, he captures the very moment the Lady catches sight of Lancelot’s reflection, which ultimately leads to her demise.

The Lady of Shalott, c.1886-1905 (oil on panel) (see also 495754) by William Holman Hunt (1827-1910). Oil on canvas, 44.4x34.1 cm. Part of the collection of the Manchester Art Gallery. The painting was inspired by the poem of 1832 by Alfred Lord Tennyson, 'The Lady of Shalott'. Hunt's depiction captures the moment after she has broken the rule of the curse forbidding her to look directly at the outside world and, seduced by the Sir Lancelot's joyful singing, has looked into the real world at Sir Lancelot; her tapestry is unravelling and symbolises the chaos and destruction that has now entered her world; behind her are portraits of Christ, on the left in Agony in the Garden and on the right, depicted in Majesty;).

The Lady of Shalott, c.1886-1905 (oil on panel) (see also 495754) by William Holman Hunt (1827-1910). Oil on canvas, 44.4×34.1 cm. Part of the collection of the Manchester Art Gallery.

The convex mirror — the key motif borrowed by the Pre-Raphaelites from Van Eyck — plays a pivotal role. It cracks suddenly and the weaving threads wrap round her twisted body.

The detailing of the discarded candelabra and slippers — objects also borrowed directly from The Arnolfini Portrait — parallels the popular interest that was evolving in photographic observation. A series of small daguerreotypes on display, dating from the 1840s-50s, shows the extent to which extraordinary precision, then becoming so fashionable, could be achieved.

The legacy of Van Eyck’s highly sophisticated painting went beyond the Pre-Raphaelites to inspire artists well into the twentieth century, examples of which are hung in the final room. This exhibition offers a refreshing opportunity to see a familiar painting in new surroundings and in the wider context of its significance to Western art.

Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites is on at the National Gallery in London until April 2, 2018

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