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Tuscan Girl, by William Holman Hunt

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About the artwork

Tuscan Girl by William Holman Hunt

This painting is part of the Lady Lever Art Gallery's collections.

William Holman Hunt was one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. A determined and resolute character, he followed the principle of ‘truth to nature’ throughout his artistic career. His powerful religious pictures brought him widespread recognition but his portraits are equally stunning.

Hunt was born in Cheapside, London, the son of a warehouse manager.  He showed a talent for painting at an early age but his father discouraged this pursuit and instead had him employed as a clerk in the City by the age of fourteen. Despite the lack of support and encouragement, the young Hunt continued to paint finding some success with portraits. He applied to study art at the Royal Academy Schools and in July 1844, on the third attempt, he was accepted as a probationer, becoming a student in the December.  He started to exhibit works at the Academy from 1846 finding inspiration for his subjects from religious episodes, Shakespeare and contemporary issues. Hunt’s reading also included contemporary arts criticism. Indeed, John Ruskin’s Modern Painters of 1847 had a profound influence on him. From this point, his thoughts were confirmed; it was the close study of nature that was the key to revitalising art.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

In 1848 Hunt met fellow student Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Hunt introduced Rossetti to his friend John Everett Millais and so the nucleus of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was brought together. These three passionate and energetic young men felt dissatisfied with the art establishment of Victorian England. The Academy Schools were dominated by the theories of Sir Joshua Reynolds (known as Sir Sloshua to the Brotherhood) and to techniques which sought to emulate nature rather than actually study it. Hunt and his friends decided to form a secret artistic society, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The name reflected their admiration for early Renaissance painting and their close friendship. Their love of early Italian art was based not on actual visits to Italy but on the study of engravings of Italian pictures and the writings of John Ruskin. They started to exhibit their Pre-Raphaelite works in 1849. All were characterised by their bright colours on a white ground, faithful study of the real world and the intensity of their stories and moral messages.

Ruskin's intervention

The first works exhibited by the group were favourably reviewed but this quickly changed once the title of the group became commonly known. The young rebels were now judged to be arrogant and disrespectful of their artistic heritage. Only the intervention of John Ruskin in 1851 saved the artists from the savagery of the critics. It was Hunt, strong, determined and principled, who kept the group together during their difficult first years. Occasionally, he was referred to as President of the Brotherhood, not that he was an official leader, but because he remained the steady driving force. In this period it was actually Hunt who suffered most, his humble background meant that money was always an issue and even more than the others he laboured intensely over his work so progress was always slow and fraught with doubts.  It took him until 1860 to become established. In that year he sold his painting 'The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple' to the dealer Ernest Gambart for £5,500.

When Hunt painted this enchanting portrait in late 1868 or early 1869, he was visiting Florence. He had set-up a studio at the villa of William Blundell Spence (1814-1900), an Anglo-Italian painter, musician and art dealer. Spence lived in the Villa Medici, just below Fiesole. Hunt painted the 'Tuscan Girl' and another work 'Caught' at the same time. The subjects, quite experimental for him, were probably painted for their commercial appeal. They were also done to fill time whilst the artist completed a monument to his recently deceased wife, Fanny Waugh. The sitter for this and Caught were the daughters of Spence’s gardener.

The young girl is shown plaiting straw. This was one of the major cottage industries of Florence; £300,000 worth of plaited straw was exported from Florence annually. As with all of Hunt’s paintings the detail and colour are incredible. The composition of the work resembles some Italian Renaissance works with its half length body set against a Tuscan landscape. Hunt himself noted that the young girl had the ‘type of gentle features peculiar to the cities of the Apennines, such as Perugino loved to picture’.

Certainly Hunt would have been familiar with the works of Perugino in the Pitti Palace, Florence and in the National Gallery in London. Hunt also designed the gilt frame. This picture and Caught were completed by March 1869 and in May that year a payment for £600 for the two works was credited to Hunt’s account. The work was first exhibited publicly at the Grosvenor Gallery inaugural exhibition in 1877. The critic of the Spectator noted its delicacy and refinement and that, ‘Hunt painted thoughtfully all that he could find in the face before him, and so it remains instinct with all the unconscious sweetness and vague fancies of pure childhood…’.  In essence it was a ‘gem’.

An audio recording of Sandra Penketh's gallery talk on 'The Tuscan Girl' is available on this website.