Technique in 'The Triumph of the Innocents'
Hunt first considered painting the subject of The Flight into Egypt as early as 1865. He returned to the idea in 1870 on his second trip the the Holy Land when he painted an oil sketch and some related landscape studies. During his third trip to the between 1875-78, this picture took up much of his time.
The three years that Hunt worked on this painting were beset with difficulties. Finding his Jerusalem home uninhabitable and his stored painting materials badly damaged, Hunt built a new house and started work on the picture using coarse-textured local linen as a substitute for canvas. After five months delay, his boxes of materials arrived from England, but having already put in a great deal of work on the picture, he decided to persevere with it. As the painting progressed, technical problems started to mount.
The linen base rent when stretched and also buckled in the centre. Hunt abandoned the picture until he returned to London in 1879. After having the linen backed with canvas, he recommenced painting. However, the centre portion continued to twist and Hunt seriously considered that it was demonic interference that was preventing him completing the picture. On Millais's advice, he sent it to another restorer, but eventually gave up and painted the replica that he finished in 1884 (Tate Gallery). Hunt subsequently had the defective piece cut out from this first picture. He then inserted a newly painted Virgin and Child.
As usual, Hunt did many pencil and chalk studies for the painting. There are two sheets of studies of the Christ Child in various positions in the Walker Art Gallery collection, as well as a highly finished chalk study of a Bethlemite woman, used as the basis for the head of Mary and a study of Hunt's son Hilary Lushington Hunt, in the pose used for the Christ Child.
In 1891, the Walker Art Gallery bought this picture for £3519, made up from private donations, exhibition entrance fees and money from Liverpool corporation. This fell well short of the 5500 guineas that Hunt had originally asked. Harold Rathbone organised the subscriptions and diplomatically persuaded Hunt to lower his price. Hunt was influenced in allowing it to go for less, partly out of gratitude to the Liverpool Academy, which, in the 1850s, had supported his work when he was poor, and partly because the picture was to hang with Rossetti's 'Dante's Dream' (bought 1881 for £1575) and Millais's 'Isabella' (bought 1884 for £1,050) as a permanent memorial to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
The critical reaction to this picture was on the whole enthusiastic. Ruskin thought it; 'the greatest religious painting of our time'
and compared the children's beauty to the cherubs on the cantorias in Florence by the fifteenth-century sculptors Donatello and Della Robbia. Millais, William Morris and George Frederick Watts all thought it among his greatest work.