William Hogarth Essay - Critical Essays

Hogarth, William


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.”

Principal Works

Emblematical Print on the South Sea Scheme (engraving) 1721

The Lottery (engraving) 1721

A Just View of the British Stage (etching and engraving) 1724

Masquerades and Operas: The Bad Taste of the Town (etching and engraving) 1724

The Mystery of Masonry Brought to Light by the Gormogons (engraving) 1724

The Beggar's Opera (painting) 1730

A Children's Party (painting) 1730

The Wedding of Stephen Bechingham and Mary Cox (painting) 1730

A Harlot's Progress (paintings and engravings) 1731

The Cholmondeley Family (painting) 1732

A Midnight Modern Conversation (engraving) 1733

Southwark Fair (engraving) 1733

A Rake's Progress (engravings) 1735

The Company of Undertakers (engraving) 1736

The Four Times of the Day (paintings) 1736; as engravings, 1738

The Pool of Bethesda (painting) 1736

The Good Samaritan (painting) 1737

Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn (etching and engraving) 1738

Captain Coram (painting) 1740

The Enraged Musician (engraving) 1741

The Graham Children (painting) 1742

Marriage à-la-Mode (paintings) 1743; as engravings, 1745

Mrs. Salter (painting) 1744

Industry and Idleness (etchings and engravings) 1747

The March to Finchley (engraving) 1750

The Four Stages of Cruelty (engravings) 1751

The Analysis of Beauty (treatise) 1753

The Election Entertainment (paintings) 1754; as engravings, 1755

Beer Street (etching and engraving) 1759

Gin Lane (etching and engraving) 1759


Joel Blair (essay date spring 1976)

SOURCE: Blair, Joel. “Hogarth's Comic History-Paintings and the Satiric Spectrum.” Genre 9, no. 1 (spring 1976): 103-19.

[In the following essay, Blair explores Hogarth's redefinition of history painting as a means of representing middle-class subjects.]

Even though the twentieth-century public has finally acknowledged the virtues of Hogarth's portraits and traditional history-paintings, his reputation still rests, as it should, on his great cycles, beginning with A Harlot's Progress (1732) and ending with An Election (1758). Frederick Antal calls them “the very beginning of a purely English art”; their author, he says, created a “genre unique...

(The entire section is 6951 words.)

Samuel L. Macey (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Macey, Samuel L. “Hogarth and the Iconography of Time.” In Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, Volume 5, edited by Ronald C. Rosbottom, pp. 41-53. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1976.

[In the following essay, Macey discusses Hogarth's representation of time and timekeeping devices in his graphic art.]

If, in Maynard Mack's terms, we think of the City in contradistinction to the Garden, then Hogarth is clearly the artist of the City. As one might expect, both the denotation and the connotation in Hogarth's work reflect the radical changes taking place in London life. The most influential technological change was probably the achievement of...

(The entire section is 4530 words.)

Robin Simon (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Simon, Robin. “Hogarth and the Popular Theatre.” Renaissance & Modern Studies 22 (1978): 13-25.

[In the following essay, Simon examines Hogarth's relationship to popular theater, suggesting that the artist drew inspiration from a number of productions and, in turn, provided inspiration to various theatrical producers.]

I have endeavoured to treat my subject as a dramatic writer; my picture is my stage, and men and women my players, who by means of certain actions and gestures, are to exhibit a dumb show.

I wished to compose pictures on canvas, similar to representations on the...

(The entire section is 5983 words.)

David Kunzle (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Kunzle, David. “William Hogarth: The Ravaged Child in the Corrupt City.” In Changing Images of the Family, edited by Virginia Tufte and Barbara Myerhoff, pp. 99-140. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979.

[In the following essay, Kunzle discusses Hogarth's sympathetic representation of children who were, in his view, neglected by their parents as well as by society as a whole.]

The rich iconography of the child and family in Western painting since the Renaissance remains a great source of untapped information for the social historian. Philippe Ariès has looked at many pictures and considered them within broad lines of development, but specialized...

(The entire section is 9770 words.)

Robert Halsband (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Halsband, Robert. “Hogarth's Graphic Friendships: Illustrating Books by Friends.” In Johnson and His Age, edited by James Engell, pp. 333-66. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984.

[In the following essay, Halsband examines Hogarth's secondary career as a book illustrator for such notable eighteenth-century authors as Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne.]

As a painter and draftsman-engraver William Hogarth ranks high in eighteenth-century British art. As a book illustrator, although here he expresses a lesser aspect of his genius, he is worthy of attention as well.1 When he illustrated works by contemporary writers whom he knew...

(The entire section is 6957 words.)

Ronald Paulson (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Paulson, Ronald. “Politics and Aesthetics: Hogarth in 1759.” In British Art 1740-1820: Essays in Honor of Robert R. Wark, edited by Guilland Sutherland, pp. 25-56. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1992.

[In the following essay, Paulson examines Hogarth's work as a response to the changing aesthetic and political contexts of the 1750s.]

The 1750s marked a period of intense and varied activity in Hogarth's career. At the beginning of the decade he had gambled with high stakes when he wrote his Analysis of Beauty (published in 1753), and the response had been partisan, ad hominem, centered in the insurgents of the St. Martin's Lane Academy....

(The entire section is 9130 words.)

Ronald Paulson (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Paulson, Ronald. “Hogarth's Self-Representations.” In The Culture of Autobiography: Constructions of Self-Representation, edited by Robert Folkenflik, pp. 188-214. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Paulson discusses the autobiographical elements of Hogarth's work, manifested in various self-representations, as well as representations of his father, his wife, and his father-in-law, within his paintings.]

William Hogarth wrote an autobiography (or at least notes and drafts toward one) and he produced in his graphic works self-representations, including self-portraits. He wrote the autobiography in the early 1760's as...

(The entire section is 7730 words.)

Peter Wagner (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Wagner, Peter. “The Satire on Doctors in Hogarth's Graphic Works.” In Literature and Medicine during the Eighteenth Century, edited by Marie Mulvey Roberts and Roy Porter, pp. 200-25. London: Routledge, 1993.

[In the following essay, Wagner studies popular attitudes toward the medical profession using the various representations of doctors in Hogarth's graphic texts.]


My interest in this chapter is in the ways Hogarth appropriates and handles various forms of popular texts and codes while creating his own ‘texts’. By analyzing the intertextual and intermedial nature of what are essentially palimpsests made up of visual and...

(The entire section is 9766 words.)

Mary Klinger Lindberg (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Lindberg, Mary Klinger. “Stylistic Strategies in William Hogarth's Theatrical Satires.” In The Question of Style in Philosophy and the Arts, edited by Caroline Van Eck, James McAllister, and Renée Van de Vall, pp. 50-69. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Lindberg examines Hogarth's technique of borrowing narrative and satiric strategies from eighteenth-century theater in his paintings and engravings.]

The study of rhetorical or persuasive strategies in literary works is now well established. Less known are the stylistic strategies at work in the domain of graphic art. What is the relation between stylistic strategies in...

(The entire section is 6101 words.)

Peter Wagner (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Wagner, Peter. “‘Official Discourse’ in Hogarth's Prints.” In Reading Iconotexts: From Swift to the French Revolution, pp. 101-37. London: Reaktion Books, 1995.

[In the following essay, Wagner discusses Hogarth's work within the context of various contemporary discourses, maintaining that the artist's participation in such discourses was not necessarily something he could completely control.]

It is even probable that there exists one single rhetorical form shared by the dream, literature, and the image.

Barthes, ‘Rhétorique de l'image’

Let us...

(The entire section is 13467 words.)

N. F. Lowe (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Lowe, N. F. “The Meaning of Venereal Disease in Hogarth's Graphic Art.” In The Secret Malady: Venereal Disease in Eighteenth-Century Britain and France, edited by Linda E. Merians, pp. 168-82. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996.

[In the following essay, Lowe explains Hogarth's many allusions to venereal disease as symbols for immorality and corruption at the highest levels of British society.]

The paintings and engravings that William Hogarth called his “modern moral subjects” were not intended to be pictorial sermons preaching simple messages about right and wrong. Ronald Paulson has argued convincingly that Hogarth's intention was to...

(The entire section is 7132 words.)

Bernd Krysmanski (essay date June 1998)

SOURCE: Krysmanski, Bernd. “We See a Ghost: Hogarth's Satire on Methodists and Connoisseurs.” Art Bulletin 80, no. 2 (June 1998): 292-310.

[In the following essay, Krysmanski examines Hogarth's Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism, the published version of the earlier Enthusiasm Delineated, which was not only a sharper satire than the reworked version, but a more mature and coherent work as well.]

I have seen Hogarth's print of the Ghost. It is a horrid composition of lewd Obscenity & blasphemous prophaneness for which I detest the artist & and have lost all esteem for the man. The best is, that the worst...

(The entire section is 12675 words.)

James Lawson (essay date July-September 1998)

SOURCE: Lawson, James. “Hogarth's Plotting of Marriage à la Mode.Word & Image 14, no. 3 (July-September 1998): 267-80.

[In the following essay, Lawson analyzes Hogarth's series Marriage à la Mode using multiple critical perspectives.]

Particularly as an engraver, William Hogarth (1697-1764) addressed his audience on matters of social concern. The scene that he presented was the contemporary one, and his mode of address was declamatory. His is a thoroughly extroverted art. Of course, Hogarth was far from unreflective about what was proper to it, considered in terms of autonomy. He wrote The Analysis of Beauty (1753) in order to trace...

(The entire section is 8028 words.)

Paul Williamson (essay date February 1999)

SOURCE: Williamson, Paul. “Hogarth and the Strangelove Effect.” Eighteenth-Century Life 23, no. 1 (February 1999): 80-95.

[In the following essay, Williamson contends that many of Hogarth's scenes of disorder and degradation are both enticing and repulsive at the same time.]

In Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963), directed by Stanley Kubrick, a mad USAF general orders a nuclear attack against the Soviet Union with apocalyptic consequences. When all recall mechanisms fail, the Superpowers are spurred into cooperation. The Soviets, forewarned of the approaching American B-52s, set about shooting them down, but one of the...

(The entire section is 6473 words.)

Philip Momberger (essay date fall 1999)

SOURCE: Momberger, Philip. “Cinematic Techniques in William Hogarth's A Harlot's Progress.Journal of Popular Culture 33, no. 2 (fall 1999): 49-65.

[In the following essay, Momberger suggests that Hogarth's engravings anticipate the narrative devices associated with cinema.]

Recent and illuminating analyses of William Hogarth's serial engravings—A Harlot's Progress (1732), A Rake's Progress (1735), Marriage à la Mode (1745), and Industry and Idleness (1747)—have explored his brilliant synthesizing of traditional pictorial forms with elements drawn from the popular arts of his eighteenth century London milieu, among them...

(The entire section is 6061 words.)

Further Reading


Brewer, David A. “Making Hogarth Heritage.” Representations 72 (fall 2000): 21-63.

Contends that elements of Hogarth's work were cited and appropriated by such a wide variety of writers and artists that by the early nineteenth century Hogarth was considered “part of the English national heritage,” with a reputation second only to Shakespeare's.

Cantrell, Pamela. “Writing the Picture: Fielding, Smollett, and Hogarthian Pictorialism.” Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture 24 (1995): 69-89.

Suggests that Hogarth's work was ideologically closer to Tobias Smollett's than to Henry Fielding's, as is...

(The entire section is 560 words.)