Hunt was born in London and entered the schools of the Royal Academy in 1844, where he met John Everett Millais, his life-long friend. In 1848-9, Hunt and Millais, together with D. G. Rossetti and several other painters, formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; as a group these artists turned from the Royal Academy and its styles of painting and pledged themselves instead to paint accurately and faithfully from nature in precise detail. In dedication to these principles Hunt visited the Holy Land three times--in 1854, 1869 and 1873--to study and capture the correct historical and natural backgrounds and lighting for his religious paintings.
His best-known painting in this genre is The Light of the World (1853), which now hangs in Keble College, Oxford (the original) and in St. Paul's Cathedral (a larger copy). Like all his paintings, the details are meticulously rendered, the craftsmanship superb, and the canvas filled with allusion and symbolic implications.
Hunt did several paintings on scenes from Shakespeare, and he felt an affinity for the playwright, who, he says in his memoirs, impressed him with his ability to speak to people of all classes, the rich and the poor, the educated and the manual laborer:
As a dramatic teacher he did not despise the groundlings; indeed I concluded that the great measure of welcome awarded to this kingly genius was but a just response to his own large-hearted sympathy with his fellows of every class; he catered to the unlearned not less than for the profoundest philosopher (quoted in Landow, 24-5).
This reflected his own attitude towards art, "to rate lightly that kind of art devised only for the initiated" and to strive to speak through his paintings to the largest possible audience.