Hunt’s father was a warehouse manager at London’s Cheapside, and he was brought up in a humble Christian home. As a young man, Holman began working as an office clerk but already had the desire to study art. In 1844, at around the age of 17, he was accepted at the prestigious Royal Academy Art Schools, after previous failed attempts.
This new journey through the Art Academy proved to be substantial to Hunt’s artistic vision for many reasons. Firstly, he met fellow artist John Everett Millais, and they eventually became life-long friends. They shared similar thoughts on creating art and had an inevitable rebellion against the vision of the Academies founder, the portrait painter Sir Joshua Reynolds. Hunt also met painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was a poet as well.
The three artists were profoundly inspired by the spiritual motifs of Medieval art, but also by Raphael’s rationalism and technique, seen in many artists of the Renaissance period. They ultimately joined their ideas to create a group in 1848, which they named the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and would all sign their works under the Brotherhood’s initials: PRB. The trio aimed to study nature attentively, so to use it as a base to express their genuine ideas. They did not care for art that was mechanical and cherished past art that came from the heart.
Initially, Holman’s creations were not well received, but he managed to gain fame with his religious paintings. One of his early masterpieces portrays Jesus and is entitled The Light of the World, located at the Keble College Chapel, in Oxford, England. The artist would further his religious paintings with the desire to make Christ’s message more tangible to the audience. With this intent, by the mid-1850s, he traveled to the Holy Lands in search of landscapes for his paintings. He eventually chose Jerusalem to build his home. During this time, he concluded beautiful artworks like The Scapegoat and The Shadow of Death.
By the end of his life, Holman stopped painting because of his poor eyesight. He depended on the help of his assistant and fellow artist of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Edward Robert Hughes, to finish his paintings.
William Holman Hunt passed away in London, England, on 7 September 1910, at the St. Paul Cathedral.