William Hogarth Critical Essays

Introduction

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

William Hogarth 1697-1764

English painter, engraver, and essayist.

Hogarth earned his reputation as a highly original painter and engraver whose satiric representations of contemporary English life employed narrative techniques similar to those associated with various literary genres, particularly the drama. Scholars have maintained that his art anticipates twentieth-century forms that combine text and image, such as comic strips and cinema. His most famous works are A Harlot's Progress (1731), A Rake's Progress (1735), Beer Street (1759), and Gin Lane (1759).

Biographical Information

Hogarth was born in Bartholemew Close, London, on November 10, 1697. His father, Richard Hogarth, was a classical scholar, a schoolmaster in a private school, and a textbook writer. Hogarth initially trained on his own and then attended John Vanderbank's drawing school. He later studied at St. Martin's Lane Academy. In order to help with the family's finances, Hogarth willingly left school at the age of seventeen and began an apprenticeship in the Leicester Fields shop of Ellis Gamble, a silverplate engraver. He disliked the job's requirement that he copy the work of others rather than execute his own designs. During this same period Hogarth's father served a five-year term in Fleet Prison for nonpayment of debts, and when the elder Hogarth died in 1718, the remaining family members went into trades to support themselves. Hogarth's sisters opened a dress shop and Hogarth became a copperplate engraver and tradesman, producing shop cards, heraldic designs, book illustrations, and the satirical engravings for which he would become famous. In 1729 Hogarth eloped with Jane Thornhill, the daughter of Sir James Thornhill, a late baroque painter whose work Hogarth admired. In order to earn a living, Hogarth began working as a painter, producing small group portraits of families called “conversation pieces,” as well as individual portraits of the cast members of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera.

Throughout his career, Hogarth served as a promoter of a national art for Britain, railing against his countrymen's often slavish devotion to the works of foreign artists and dramatists. He also worked to encourage artistic independence from the patronage system, insisting that painters could support themselves without the controlling influence of wealthy patrons if they would exhibit their work in public places and sell inexpensive prints of their paintings. In philanthropic work outside the art world, Hogarth served as governor of both the Foundling Hospital and St. Bartholomew's Hospital, and worked, along with his friend Henry Fielding, on an anti-gin campaign. Although he and his wife were childless, Hogarth was known for his sensitive representations of children in his art and for his humanitarian work among young artisans and laborers.

His long and successful career earned Hogarth a comfortable living, and he maintained both a London townhouse and a country home. He succeeded his father-in-law as sergeant-painter to the king in 1757, and was reappointed by George III in 1760. Hogarth continued to paint until the end of his life, working on the print Bathos when he died on October 25, 1764, after a brief illness.

Major Works

Among Hogarth's earliest works, aside from the small cards and bookplates he produced early in his career, were two allegorical engravings, The South Sea Scheme and The Lottery, both produced in 1721; these were the first of the satirical works attacking contemporary social problems that would prove so important in Hogarth's career. He earned his living, meanwhile, as a painter, primarily of informal family group portraits, or “conversation pieces” as they were called. Examples of this work include A Children's Party (1730), The Wedding of Stephen Bechingham and Mary Cox (1730), and The Cholmondeley Family (1732). Encouraged by the success of the small conversation pieces, Hogarth began accepting commissions for life-sized portraits, such as Captain Coram (1740), The Graham Children (1742), and Mrs. Salter (1744). Another successful piece from his early period was a scene from John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1730), which he was then commissioned to paint in several more versions. At the same time that Hogarth was establishing himself as a successful portrait artist, he had also been producing his own brand of landscape art, or “urban pastoral,” such as The Four Times of the Day (1736), along with monumental history paintings, among them the two works he donated to St. Bartholomew's Hospital, The Pool of Bethesda (1736) and The Good Samaritan (1737).

Although he worked in a variety of artistic genres, Hogarth achieved his greatest fame and popularity with his satiric paintings and engravings, particularly his “progresses.” The satires covered a wide range of social and artistic subjects, from the neglect of English theater to the evils of gambling, drink, and sexual profligacy. His most famous individual engravings are Gin Lane and Beer Street, contrasting the devastating effects of cheap gin on the poor with the far healthier attributes of beer, the drink of artisans and laborers. His most important satiric cycles are A Harlot's Progress and A Rake's Progress. The former is a set of six engravings that trace the declining fortunes of an innocent country girl who becomes a London prostitute and dies at the age of twenty-three from venereal disease. The latter, produced four years later, details the gradual degradation of a young man who spends both his inheritance and his wife's dowry on drinking, gambling, and prostitutes, resulting in his commitment to the Bethlehem Hospital for the insane. Other important engraving sets include Marriage à la Mode (1745; after a 1743 painting), an attack on both the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie; Industry and Idleness (1747), an inspirational piece encouraging young apprentices to work hard; and The Four Stages of Cruelty (1751), a series of prints connecting cruelty to animals with cruelty to humans.

In addition to his paintings and engravings, Hogarth published an extended essay on his aesthetic theories, The Analysis of Beauty (1753). Later editions of the work include autobiographical material from Hogarth's previously unpublished notes.

Critical Reception

Hogarth's reputation, both in his own time as well as today, rests largely on the satirical cycles he produced between 1732 and 1758. He is often credited with the development of a new artistic genre, one that differed from the work of artists on the continent and that was, therefore, uniquely English. Many critics suggest that Hogarth's work has much in common with various literary genres—particularly biography, drama, and the novel. More recently, scholars have maintained that his art anticipates twentieth-century forms such as comic strips and cinema. Joel Blair has explained the innovative nature of Hogarth's art: “Its subjects are middle-class people, who are neither burlesqued nor idealized; its scene is recognizable, contemporary eighteenth-century England; its ‘action’ is similar to that of its corresponding genre in literature, the modern novel as practiced by Defoe and Fielding.” Referring to Hogarth's graphic satires as “narratives,” James Lawson has contended that his work “owes much to dramatic staging and at the same time to the other principal narrative form, the novel.” Robin Simon has studied the “mutually profitable” relationship between Hogarth's work and contemporary popular theater, wherein Hogarth's art provided material for various theatrical productions and the dramatic works inspired many of his paintings and engravings. According to Simon, “it is difficult to find a satirical picture of his which is not connected with the popular theater in some way.” Mary Klinger Lindberg also has found connections between Hogarth and contemporary theater, maintaining that “Hogarth's stylistic strategy is to borrow extensively from accepted devices of the eighteenth-century theater—its dynamic stage and acting commonplaces, and a storyline of satirical fictions, for example—and incorporate them into a static, pictorial form.” Michael M. Cohen has noted similarities in the satiric techniques employed by Hogarth and those of contemporary verse satirists. “Hogarth, like Pope or Dryden, presents scenes which maintain an illusion of looking into a window on the world but which include judicious exaggeration,” according to Cohen. Some critics have claimed that Hogarth's graphic techniques anticipate those of more modern popular art forms, such as the comic strip, the political cartoon, and film. Philip Momberger has commented on the use of cinematic devices and structure in A Harlot's Progress. “Examined as if they composed a motion picture's preparatory ‘story board’ or were still frames in a black-and-white silent film,” Momberger observed, “those six engravings prophesy major strategies in the filmic art that would lie nearly two centuries in the future.”