Art History 262
Dr. Linda Merrill
12 February 2015 “There is not a single object in all that room, common, modern, vulgar…but it becomes tragical if rightly read.” –John Ruskin Prostitution, “the great social evil”, became increasingly prominent in England in the late nineteenth century, and by a widely accepted double standard the prostitute herself was held responsible for the repercussions: the destruction of families and the spreading of disease. Adulterous women were stripped of all legal control with the passage of legislation such as the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 and the Infant’s Custody Act of 1839, and to be a “fallen woman” during this time was, to apply a term used by Ruskin, “tragical.”
William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience explores the fallen woman in a challenging and confrontational way that demands the attention of the viewer, a demand that is also apparent in Manet’s Olympia, but in a much different context. Whereas The Awakening Conscience presents prostitutes as wasted and sad women in need of saving, Olympia presents them as confident, independent women who feel no shame for their “immoral” behavior. These differences reflect the way the English viewed their own morality as well the way they viewed French amorality, yet, despite these differences, The Awakening Conscience and Olympia contain some striking similarities in both their portrayal of prostitutes and in the way they challenge contemporary artistic norms.
In both Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience and Manet’s Olympia careful attention to detail and deliberate symbolism leave nothing to the viewer’s imagination. Both paintings depict a prostitute in her place of work, yet despite the similar subject matter the effect of each painting is quite different. In Manet’s painting, the details that indicate that the subject is a prostitute include her pearl earrings and bracelet, the black ribbon around her neck, her cast off slipper, the orchid in her hair, and even the name Olympia. These features not only characterize Olympia as a prostitute, but they also create a strong sense of female sensuality that is absent from The Awakening Conscience and would have been regarded as highly amoral by an English audience. An English audience would have been further alienated by the way Olympia radiates confidence, challenging the viewer and placing them in the position of Olympia’s client; Olympia uses her hand to block what her clients are most interested in, suggesting that she has the power to grant or restrict access to her body. Thus, Olympia is in the position of power and we are subordinate, akin to the black servant handing her flowers at the foot of the bed.
Holman Hunt similarly indicates that the subject of his painting is a prostitute, although her fingers are laden with jewelry she lacks a wedding ring and she is hardly dressed like a proper lady, but his representation leaves out any indication of female dominance or capability. Rather than being in control of her situation, Holman Hunt’s prostitute is trapped like the wounded bird that has been caught by the mischievous black cat lurking under the table. Although she has seen the light and realizes the errors of her ways, Holman Hunt’s prostitute can do very little about it, a plight that was experienced by many fallen Victorian women during this time. The lush, green garden instills a sense of hope for the fallen woman, but a number of details suggest that this may be a false hope, as John Ruskin wrote “the very hem of the poor girl’s dress, which the painter has labored so closely, thread by thread, has story in it, if we think how soon its pure whiteness may be soiled with dust and rain, her outcast feet falling in the street.” This hopeless, melancholy tone is emphasized further by the uncanny newness of the furnishings in the mistress’s house. The apartment is garishly furnished in such a way that it depicts an accommodation, but not a home.