Lisa Vogel provides biographical information relating to Hunt’s Awakening Conscience and situates the painting in a broader social context:
“Annie Miller was a young woman from the working-class slums of London. Hunt picked her up in Chelsea, where she was already a part-time model, and probably a part-time prostitute as well….In the case of Annie Miller, [Hunt] attempted to construct a sort of personal redemption by trying to make her into a living counterpart to the protagonist in his painting The Awakening Conscience, a work for which she was in fact a model….In real life, Hunt tried to arrange for Annie Miller to be made into a ‘lady,’ and, eventually, his future wife. But Hunt could not control Miller’s conscience – or, rather, her consciousness….Their interests – based on sex and class – clashed, and Miller quite stubbornly and independently refused to subordinate herself to the artist’s megalomaniac attempt to play modern Pygmalion. Miller seems to have lived her life as she thought best, surveying her alternatives and opting for the best choices as she saw them. After the stormy affair with Hunt, she was for years the mistress of the seventh Viscount Ranelagh, and eventually married his cousin – apparently an excellent match….
Annie Miller’s resistance and independence should be seen as an individual response to a quite general situation. Elsewhere, the same kinds of conditions were giving rise to collective responses in the form of the emergence of feminism, the heightening of class struggle, and the development of a variety of socialist movements. In the course of the nineteenth century, the comfortable and well-tailored correspondence of image to reality – always a somewhat problematic and vulnerable relationship even in the best of circumstances – came under severe strain and began to crack.”
Lise Vogel, “Fine Arts and Feminism: The Awakening Consciousness,” Feminist Studies, vol. 2, no. 1 (1974): 3.
Linda Nochlin suggests that Hunt’s Awakening Conscience may have been inspired by a drawing of fellow Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti:
“Despite the frequency of Pre-Raphaelite squabbles over precedence, and the incontrovertible fact that the terminus ante quem for the Awakening Conscience is 1853, the year of the earliest dated complete project for [Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s] Found, it is significant that Hunt, who had originally, in the 1905 edition of his Pre-Raphaelitism, dated his first thoughts for the Awakening Conscience to 1851, revised this date to 1853 in the edition of 1913. But there is more substantial evidence that Rossetti provided the pictorial inspiration for the basic conception as well as many of the characteristic details of the Awakening Conscience: this evidence if Rossetti’s small pen and ink drawing, similar in its moral, if not modern, subject: Hesterna Rosa [Tate, London]…’composed – 1850 – drawn and given to his P.R. Brother Frederic G. Stephens – 1853,’ which suggests an earlier origin….Like the Awakening Conscience, it demonstrates the power of music, an art traditionally associated with erotic temptation, to awaken conscience by recalling childlike innocence…In Hesterna Rosa, too, the conscience-stricken woman is, like Hunt’s, entangled with an uncaring, shallow male companion, who, continuing his play, provides a foil for her sudden change of heart. The contrast of inside and outside, the crowded, body-packed realm of sin opposed to the pure realm of nature outside the windows, is present in both works…”
Linda Nochlin, “Lost and Found: Once More the Fallen Woman,” The Art Bulletin, vol. 60, no. 1 (March 1978): 145-7.
Lynn Nead explains the contemporary understanding of Hunt’s Awakening Conscience as a contrast between the immoral behavior of both aristocrats and the working classes and the virtuous behavior of the middle classes:
“In those reviews which admitted to understand the narrative of the picture, the woman was generally discussed as a victim of seduction. The man had tempted her and she had fallen. It was assumed that she had been innocent prior to this relationship and was thus a victim of the man’s cruelty. In an account of the picture published in 1860, F.G. Stephens identified the rank of this man very specifically. He described ‘a man, a showy, handsome tiger of the human species, heartless and indifferent as death. One of his patrician arms surrounds the victim of his passions.’ The term ‘patrician’ is highly significant, it identifies the man specifically as a nobleman, an aristocrat. The picture is thus read as a critique of aristocratic morality and sexual behavior and the woman is seen as a passive victim of this predatory licentiousness.
The Awakening Conscious is part of a formation of bourgeois morality. It defines sexual deviance in terms of its difference to the domestic norm of middle-class marriage and home. Critics emphasized the absence of signs of domesticity in the interior. It was new, flashy, vulgar and unused, it lacked the rich moral associations of the bourgeois domestic ideal.”
Lynn Nead, “The Magdalen in Modern Times: The Mythology of the Fallen Woman in Pre-Raphaelite Painting,” Oxford Art Journal, vol. 7, no. 1 (1984): 35-6.
Elizabeth Prettejohn explains English art critic John Ruskin's assessment of Awakening Conscience:
"[John] Ruskin presents The Awakening Conscience as just the kind of painting that French proponents of a social art were demanding at the same moment: a modern-life subject, relentlessly honest in its portrayal of ungainly furniture and ugly costumes, and aimed at social reform in the rela world. Moreover, this is not, for Ruskin, simply to do with subject-matter. Ruskin shows clearly how the minutiae of the picture's execution are integral not only to the 'realism' of its representation of the extermal world, but equally to its effectiveness in delivering it messages. A detail such as the hem not only records observed fact with scrupulous exactitude, but also elaborates the pictorial narrative and its social implications; at the same time it serves as a sign of the painter's integrity. Thus the critical account fulfils one of Ruskin's most cherished aims: to prove that visual art is not mere entertainment or pastime, but instead is throoughly integrated with the most urgen social, moral, and political issues of the modern world. For Ruskin it is vital that everything about the picture should be interconnected, that the tiniest visual detail (such as the hem) should signify the greatest moral truth (the inevitability of retribution for sin). In the process, he taught his readers in Victorian England...to see much more in pictures than we should have thought possible, to look as industriously as Hunt painted."
Elizabeth Prettejohn, Beauty and Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 113.
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