The Awakening What?

In doing some research for a possible next mystery novel, I am looking into the Pre-Raphaelites, one of the few sets of people that still has the power to surprise me. I came upon this article: Edouard Rod, “The English Pre-Raphaelites“, The Connoisseur (June 1888).

It references several paintings I have seen. In discussing Holman Hunt’s Christianity, Rod mentions his painting, The Awakening Conscience (1853). He notes:

According to the explanatory catalogue, “The Awakening of Conscience” represents a young woman led into evil by a shallow and frivolous man, and installed by him in a little English cottage; her conscience is awakened by the refrain of an old song, “Oft in the Stilly Night,” played by her lover upon the piano, and which recalls to her the time before her fall. If you look at the picture without reference to the catalogue, and endeavor to seize the moral, you will notice that painful thought is indicated by the tension of the features; the young woman is depicted as leaning back in a hopeless attitude against the easy-chair in which she is seated; you will also infer from the indifferent and smiling air of the man, whose fingers are wandering over the keys, that her disturbed feeling is not produced by the simple music; you will still further see that the man is thoroughly commonplace, while the woman is of finer fibre, but nothing more.

That’s funny, I didn’t remember her being seated, but rather him being seated and her rising. And when I saw it in person I questioned the whole idea of her entering some stage of repentance anyway. So I thought I’d have another look:

OK, so maybe he had been playing the piano, but he certainly isn’t now, and she is not lounging hopelessly in the easy chair — he is, like I remembered, and she seems to be rising from sitting on his lap. And is that a cottage? It looks like an urban flat to me, but what do I know? Anyway, his fingers are not wandering over the keys, but resting on them.

Sometimes, this sort of incongruity happens because there were different versions of the painting. But I looked and there doesn’t seem to be another one. Had Rod really not seen the work? Or did he see a different scene than was painted? The rest of the article was good, but marred for me by this inaccuracy.

One does hope, of course, that one can at least trust the facts in a secondary source, if not the interpretation. If I lived in pre-internet times, I wouldn’t have been able to look and check the work itself without going to a library. But here I go blithely sending students to J-STOR, telling them to do their research. Better check our facts, even in 1888.

2 comments to The Awakening What?

  • JMM

    To me her expression is marked by cheerful purpose, as if she’s just now remembered where she left her favorite gardening gloves. She’s getting off his lap to get them before her terrier finds them, having completely forgotten her man’s existence. Now I can finish pruning the roses, yay!