Description: The Plain of Esdraelon
signed and inscribed 'Sketch by W Holman Hunt Plains of Esdraelon preparatory to "Over those pastures walked those blessed feet" in Ashmolean Oxford ' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
12 1/4 x 28 in. (31 x 71.1 cm.)
Artist or Maker: William Holman Hunt, O.M., R.W.S., (1827-1910)
Exhibited: Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery, and London, Victoria and Albert Museum, William Holman Hunt: An Exhibition arranged by the Walker Art Gallery, 1969, no. 48, illustrated pl. 81.
Literature: [W. Holman Hunt], Mr. Holman Hunt's picture, 'The Shadow of Death', , p. 5.
W. Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, London, 1905, vol. II, pp. 287-8, 289.
W. Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 2nd ed., London, 1913, vol. II, pp. 229-231.
A. Staley, The Pre-Raphaelite Landscape, Oxford, 1973, p. 75.
J. Bronkhurst, William Holman Hunt: A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London (forthcoming), cat. no. 118, vol. I, p. 229 illustrated.
Provenance: By descent in the artist's family to his daughter Gladys Joseph;
her gift to Sir Israel Gollancz and thence by descent to the present owner.
Notes: PROPERTY OF THE LATE OLIVER GOLLANCZ SOLD BY ORDER OF THE EXECUTORS
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Holman Hunt arrived in Jerusalem in August 1869, having already spent several months thinking about the major works he was to paint in the Holy Land. The first of these was The Shadow of Death, which, like The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple (Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery), the successful fruit of his 1854-5 trip to Palestine, included in the background a landscape associated with the life of Christ. The first version of The Shadow of Death (Leeds), begun in the autumn of 1869, featured a fairly small window behind the Saviour, with a fig-tree but no view. The view through the window was, however, to be an essential feature of the large painting begun the following year (Manchester Art Gallery); it was intended to lead the spectator to meditate on the associations aroused by the landscape to the south-east of Nazareth, the site of Christ's upbringing and ministry. This was in accordance with Ruskinian principles of the value of historic landscape, which Hunt endorsed wholeheartedly. He had elucidated this in a letter written in Jerusalem on 12 August 1855 to his close friend W.M. Rossetti: 'I have a notion that painters should go out...like merchants of nature, and bring home precious merchandise in faithful pictures of scenes interesting from historical consideration, or from the strangeness of the subject itself...I think this must be the next stage of PRB indoctrination and it has been this conviction which brought me out here, and which keeps me away in patience until the experiment has been fairly tried' (MS. Huntington Library).
Hunt derived intense aesthetic pleasure as well as spiritual sustenance from the landscape of Palestine. 'I wonder a little at your indifference to seeing this country', he wrote reprovingly to his Pre-Raphaelite brother F.G. Stephens on 21 June 1870. 'Putting aside the Bible and Testament histories, and surely they contain as much interesting record as any books in the world, there is the natural formation of the country, the different national interests in the land and the wonderful facts these have caused to be enacted here, to make it a land worth seeing as much as any on the face of the earth' (MS. Bodleian Library).
This letter was written immediately after Hunt's return to Jerusalem from a three-week trip to Nazareth. As he later recalled in his memoirs, he 'encamped below the town, and ascended each morning to the eminence on which the ancient city had been built. Thence I had an enchanting view of the valley fields cultivated by Nazarene farmers, and of its flanking hills reaching to "Gebel el Cowis", the Hill of Precipitation, evidently so named from its conspicuously abrupt descent into the plain of Jezreel [Esdraelon]. On the great lower plain stretched the patchwork squares of cultivation under the slope of Tabor, continuing to the hills of Gilboa and Dothan, and these branched out into the swelling heights of Samaria, as well as the extended range of Carmel, bounding on the south Jezreel, Megiddo, and the lowland where ran "that ancient river the Kishon" - the plain where flowed the blood of so many warriors of alien races who have shaped the course of history'.
His time was taken up, he told his patron Thomas Combe, working 'very hard all the while, partly at the sketch for my picture the view out of [the] window' (MS. Bodleian Library) in The Shadow of Death. This sketch was our picture, The Plain of Esdraelon, which Hunt used as the basis for the more highly-worked oil in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (fig. 1). It certainly gives the impression of having been executed entirely on the spot - there has been no attempt to work up the areas of bare canvas in the corners of the foreground. It is closely related to the view through the window in The Shadow of Death in terms of colour as well as the configuration of the landscape. This is described in the pamphlet Hunt wrote to accompany the exhibition of The Shadow of Death in 1873 as representing 'the hills of Galilee, with Gebel-al-Covvies, the Hill of Precipitation, and, further off, the plain of Jezreel [Esdraelon], and, beyond this, the mountains of Gilboa; almost meeting on the right the range of Carmel, while in the far distance, on the left, are the remote mountains extending to Moab behind the Jordan' (op.cit. p. 7).
As Allen Staley has observed, the first version of The Plain of Esdraelon 'still has some of the strength of vision of the watercolours of 1854 and 1855'. It can be compared with the unfinished watercolour A Wadi in Palestine, executed in the autumn of 1854 (Private Collection). Both works show Hunt's skill at recording the landscape of the Holy Land in an impressively uncluttered way that appeals to the spectator both for its immediacy and timelessness.
The Plain of Esdraelon, one of Hunt's few unfinished oil sketches, reveals his methods as a plein-air painter - the meticulous observation and sensitivity to the effect of light on landscape - and his oil technique, in, for example, the copious use of blue contours for the underpainting. The landscape was originally larger than it now appears: the canvas has been cut down at the sides and lower edge, presumably by the artist.
We are grateful to Dr. Judith Bronkhurst, author of the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Hunt's works, for her help in providing this catalogue entry.
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