Friday, 7 March 2014

Art for Lent (3): ‘The Importunate Neighbour’
(1895), by William Holman Hunt

‘The Importunate Neighbour’ (1895), by William Holman Hunt

Patrick Comerford

My choice of a work of art for meditation this morning [7 March 2014] is The Importunate Neighbour (1895) by the English Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt (1827-1910). This small painting in oil on canvas measures 51.7 cm x 36.4 cm, and is in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia.

This painting is one of several works prompted by Holman Hunt’s fourth and last visit to the Middle East in 1893. In this painting, he illustrates the parable in Luke 11: 5-10:

5 And he said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.” 7 And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

9 ‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

Thirty years before Holman Hunt painted The Importunate Neighbour, another leading Pre-Raphaelite, John Everett Millais, illustrated the same parable in The Parables of Our Lord (1864). Unlike Hunt, however, Millais shows the friend handing the importunate neighbour the bread he asked for.

Hunt was working on this painting by 1893, when a photographic image of his work in progress on this painting was included in Sir Edwin Arnold’s The Light of the World, or The Great Consummation. By the summer of 1894, Hunt had largely completed The Importunate Neighbour. This is his last entirely new religious subject, and it relates in interesting ways to his other works, including The Light of the World, Christ the Pilot and The Awakening Conscience.

The Importunate Neighbour presents an image of humanity trying to return to our divine father and our divine homeland, and it relates to Hunt’s The Light of the World, providing an obvious companion image or complement to his most popular and successful painting.

The Light of the World shows Christ knocking on the door of the human heart, and presents the way in which God in his grace awakens the human heart and conscience. On the other hand, The Importunate Neighbour represents humanity seeking God, and God welcoming the seeker. For, as Christ tells his disciples in this parable: “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Luke 11: 9).

Both paintings, then, create images of divine grace. In The Importunate Neighbour, humanity is the active agent, the seeker; in The Light of the World, Christ is the seeker.

Together, the two paintings represent sequential stages in our journey to God. In The Light of the World, Hunt records his own visionary experience of conversion, depicting the first instant when an individual awakens to God; in The Importunate Neighbour, he shows the awakened conscience, the convert, in search of his God and salvation.

Although The Light of the World employs a vertical format and this morning’s painting is in a horizontal format, both paintings are night paintings in which single male figures are depicted knocking at closed doors in settings in which vegetation plays an important part.

Why did Hunt decide to paint a parable that had to be represented as a night scene?

He once told his friend John L. Tupper of Rugby that he found night scenes far easier to paint than scenes set in the full light of day. In a letter dated 20 June 1878, Hunt told Tupper: “If The Light of the World had required sunlight, I should have had the difficulties of my task increased immensely.”

At this time, his vision was giving Hunt severe trouble, so that working with colour was increasingly difficult. But he also believed that works set as night scenes took less effort and caused less strain than a sunlight picture. Therefore, he could preserve his failing sight for major large-scale projects, including the large version of The Light of the World and The Lady of Shalott.

Nonetheless, Hunt’s choice of a night scene that contains a single male figure knocking on a closed door owes a great deal to the fact that his chosen subject demands comparison with The Light of the World. At this time, Hunt was concerned with his first great popular success, which had been bought by his friend and financial adviser Thomas Combe of Oxford.

Hunt was frustrated when the public no longer had adequate access to the original version of The Light of the World. After an interval of half a century, he began painting a replica or second version of the painting. Then, on the day of Combe’s funeral, his widow, who was deeply interested in the approaching opening of Keble College, Oxford, decided to present the original painting to the new college.

The painting was hung in the Library at Keble College, but it suffered severe but unnoticed damage because of it was too near a hot flue. When it was lent for an exhibition of Hunt’s work in 1886, it was said to have been “virtually destroyed.”

Hunt spent some weeks re-painting the ruined parts and trying to restore it to its original state. On its return to Keble College it was again hung in the library. Unhappy with this arrangement, Combe’s widow provided in her will for a special chapel that would be home to the painting. However, when the chapel was built and the painting was placed there, it was in a new frame, without the title, and bearing a text.

Feeling his work was permanently hidden from the world, Hunt decided to paint a larger replica, which is now on display in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London.

The extent to which The Light of the World was then in Hunt’s mind explains to some degree why he echoed its composition and central ideas in this morning’s painting, The Importunate Neighbour.

In The Importunate Neighbour, Hunt recapitulates his earlier themes, subject, and pictorial techniques although he is trying to create a very different kind of work from his earlier paintings. And so, The Importunate Neighbour, therefore, provides an obvious companion or complement to The Light of the World, Hunt’s first great popular success.

Tomorrow: Art for Lent (4): ‘Still Life with Bible,’ by Vincent van Gogh.

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