Hunt, The Triumph of the Innocents (1883 – 1884, Tate)

For Ruskin, The Triumph of the Innocents was the most important work of Hunt’s career and ‘the greatest religious painting of our time’, maybe because it exemplified the grotesque as expressed in the above passage.[1] Relevant to this interpretation are the problems Hunt encountered when working on the first version. He had to contend not only with the threat of typhoid fever but also with the anxiety caused by the dangerous political situation in Jerusalem following Russia’s declaration of war against Turkey in 1877, which led him to evacuate his family to Jaffa to escape what he feared would be a massacre of Christians in the area. Back in London he experienced technical problems and having had the linen support backed with canvas he found the centre of the picture beginning to twist. This made him suspect that demonic interference was preventing the work’s completion, causing him to temporarily abandon the painting and commence the second Tate version. Hunt’s problems culminated in an extraordinary psychic encounter with the devil when working on the painting at his studio in London on Christmas day 1879, as he explained in a letter to his friend William Bell Scott:

I hung back to look at my picture. I felt assured that I should succeed. I said to myself half aloud, ‘I think I have beaten the devil!’ and stepped down, when the whole building shook with a convulsion, seemingly immediately behind the easel, as if a great creature were shaking itself and running between me and the door … I noticed that there was no sign of human or other creature about. I went back to my own work really rather cheered by the grotesque suggestion that came into my mind that the commotion was the evil one departing.[2]

The Triumph of the Innocents took on a sublime dimension for Hunt, introducing him to experiences of transcendence, terror and the uncanny. How far this experience transfers to the viewer depends on our ability to engage with the work on an aesthetic and psychological level, a challenge for audiences living in a secularised and religiously sceptical culture.

See Alison Smith’s essay:

[1] Ruskin, ‘The Art of England’, in Cook and Wedderburn 1903–12, vol.33, p.277

[2] William Holman Hunt, letter to William Bell Scott, 5 January 1880, in William Bell Scott, Autobiographical Notes, and Notices of his Artistic and Poetic Circle of Friends, 1830–1882, ed. by William Minto, London 1892, vol.2, pp.230–1. In a letter to Hunt about the painting of February 1880 Ruskin wrote, ‘I hope the Adversity may be looked on as really Diabolic and finally conquerable utterly’, as if acknowledging the substance of the artist’s vision. Quoted in Robert Hewison, Ian Warrell and Stephen Wildman, Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2000, p.275.