The Awakening Conscience


The fallen woman was quite a theme for the Pre-Raphaelites. In this painting, The Awakening Conscience, we see a mistress rising from the seat of her lover, seemingly stricken with the realization of what her life has become. The Awakening Conscience, painted by William Holman Hunt, is filled with symbolism: a cat crouches under the table devouring a dead bird, the woman’s hands are adorned with rings on every finger except where a wedding ring would be, on the floor we see unraveling wool. I recently read in Reading the Pre-Raphaelites that the sheet music on the piano, Oft in the Stilly Night, is presumably responsible for the awakening of her conscious:

Oft, in the stilly night,
Ere Slumber’s chain has bound me,
Fond Memory brings the light
Of other days around me;
The smiles, the tears,
Of boyhood’s years,
The words of love then spoken;
The eyes that shone,
Now dimm’d and gone,
The cheerful hearts now broken!
Thus, in the stilly night,
Ere Slumber’s chain hath bound me,
Sad Memory brings the light
Of other days around me.

John Ruskin, feeling that the painting was misunderstood, wrote that “There is not a single object in all that room, common, modern, vulgar…but it becomes tragical, if rightly read…That furniture so carefully painted, even to the last vein of rosewood – is there nothing to be learnt from the terrible lustre of it, from its fatal newness; nothing there that has the old thoughts of home upon it, or that is ever to become a part of a home?

The newness of the furniture is significant and indicates the freshly furnished home of a kept woman, not the loved and worn furnishings that fill the home of a family.

The model in this painting is Annie Miller, who Holman Hunt “rescued from obscurity”. He was engaged to her and launched a campaign to better her. She took classes and worked to become a refined woman of a higher class. It is said that in this painting, her face originally showed a look of guilt. But after learning of her infidelity with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Holman Hunt repainted her features. I would love to know what the original looked like.

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10 Replies to “The Awakening Conscience”

  1. LOVE your blog, thanks for entertaining me
    Hope there will be more posts soon
    regards, terry
    ps – sorry im not that good in writing in english because I came from europe – but i understand a lot

  2. I am researching `The Awakening Conscience,` for a play I am writing. Do you have any idea who modelled for the man in the picture?

    Hope to hear from you.

      1. Thank you for your reply byt I knew that Annie Miller modelled for the woman, and that later her face was changed.

        Do you have any idea who modelled for the man?

        Are you a PRB expert?

        Best wishes

        Debbie Freeman

        1. Oh, I’m so sorry, I was reading your original question via my cell phone and I see now that you were asking about the man! No, I’m sorry, I don’t know who the model for the man was. I will see what I can find out for you, though.
          No, I certainly don’t consider myself a PRB expert. Studying the Pre-Raphaelites is definitely a passion of mine.
          Your project sounds interesting. I wish you good luck with your play.

          1. Hi,

            Came across your reply whilst searching for advice/help/suggestions for reading material which will assist me to answer the following;

            How far did the Pre-Raphaelites express contested discourses on the role of women in the mid Victorian period?

            Any help would be greatly appreciated.

            Best wishes,


  3. Probably not required any longer but the male sitter is reputed to be Augustus Egg, also a painter who did “Past and Present”, a triptych on the theme of female adultery

  4. Hi, I need to know about the clothing of the painting, the fashion and the relation with society and culture. I would appreciate any help. Thankis in advance!

  5. Hello

    I find the idea of a Pre-Raphealite Sisterhood intriguing, I was not aware that one could exist. I am fascinated by these painters, I think they were both technical and spiritual geniuses who understood exactly what art was about. I am thinking of a quote attributed to one of them, that a painting should be something that exists in its own world that could never exist in any other. I am extremely fascinated by Waterhouse, who I think was an utter genius and still not truly appreciated.

    In any case thank you for your website, I was hoping you could tell me something about what your attraction to these painters is.


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