William Holman Hunt changed his middle name from "Hobman" to Holman when he discovered that a clerk had misspelled the name after his baptism at the church of Saint Mary the Virgin, Ewell. After eventually entering the Royal Academy art schools, having initially been rejected, Hunt rebelled against the influence of its founder Sir Joshua Reynolds. He formed the Pre-Raphaelite movement in 1848, after meeting the poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Along with John Everett Millais they sought to revitalize art by emphasizing the detailed observation of the natural world in a spirit of quasi-religious devotion to truth. This religious approach was influenced by the spiritual qualities of medieval art, in opposition to the alleged rationalism of the Renaissance embodied by Raphael.
Hunt married twice. After a failed engagement to his model Annie Miller, he married Fanny Waugh, who later modeled for the figure of "Isabella". When she died in childbirth in Italy he sculpted her tomb at Fiesole, having it brought down to the English Cemetery, beside the tomb of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. His second wife, Edith, was Fanny's sister. At this time it was illegal in Britain to marry one's deceased wife's sister, so Hunt was forced to travel abroad to marry her. This led to a serious breach with other family members, notably his former Pre-Raphaelite colleague Thomas Woolner, who had once been in love with Fanny and had married Alice, the third sister of Fanny and Edith.
Hunt's works were not initially successful, and were widely attacked in the art press for their alleged clumsiness and ugliness. He achieved some early note for his intensely naturalistic scenes of modern rural and urban life, such as "The Hireling Shepherd" and "The Awakening Conscience". However, it was with his religious paintings that he became famous.
In the mid 1850s Hunt traveled to the Holy Land in search of accurate topographical and ethnographical material for further religious works, and to "use my powers to make more tangible Jesus Christ’s history and teaching"; there he painted "The Scapegoat", "The Finding of the Savior in the Temple" and "The Shadow of Death", along with many landscapes of the region. Hunt also painted many works based on poems, such as "Isabella" and "The Lady of Shalott". He eventually built his own house in Jerusalem.
Hunt's paintings were notable for their great attention to detail, vivid color and elaborate symbolism. These features were influenced by the writings of John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle, according to whom the world itself should be read as a system of visual signs. For Hunt it was the duty of the artist to reveal the correspondence between sign and fact. Out of all the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood Hunt remained most true to their ideals throughout his career. He eventually had to give up painting because failing eyesight meant that he could not get the level of quality that he wanted. His last major work, "The Lady of Shalott", was completed with the help of his assistant Edward Robert Hughes.
Hunt published an autobiography in 1905. Many of his late writings are attempts to control the interpretation of his work. That year, he was appointed to the Order of Merit by King Edward VII. At the end of his life he lived in Sonning-on-Thames. His personal life was the subject of Diana Holman-Hunt's book My Grandfather, his Life and Loves.