Article abstract: Hogarth’s vivid sense of detail and dramatic construction enabled him to create paintings and engravings that were entertainingly comic as well as devastatingly satiric.
William Hogarth was born November 10, 1697, in the Smithfield Market section of London, England, the city that was his lifelong home and also the recurrent setting for the folly and wickedness satirized in much of his work. His father, Richard Hogarth, was a struggling schoolmaster and hack writer whose marriage with his landlord’s daughter, Anne Gibbons, only marginally improved his financial circumstances. Richard’s imprisonment for debt and the inescapable poverty of the family even when the father was not in Fleet Prison left a deep impression on the younger Hogarth, evident not only in his pictures capturing the squalor and horror of Grub Street life but also in his meticulous concern for protecting his financial interests when he began to have some success.
Unable to afford a university education or to attend an art academy, Hogarth entered into an apprenticeship with a silversmith in 1714, engraving heraldic ornaments on silver plate and occasionally designing and executing illustrations for cheap novels and shop cards. He took steps, though, to ensure that his career, unlike that of his father, would not be limited to hack work. In 1720, he began to further his education in painting, a much more socially respectable skill than engraving, by affiliating himself with the artists at St. Martin’s Academy, especially Sir James Thornhill, whose daughter Jane he married in 1729. He did not leave engraving behind but rather turned it to his own purposes, designing and selling satiric engravings that comically ridiculed some contemporary fashions and fiascos. His single plate (in 1721) on the so-called South Sea Bubble, a disastrous investment scandal, and his series of plates (of 1725-1726) illustrating Samuel Butler’s poem Hudibras (1663, 1664, 1678), continuing that poem’s mockery of Puritanism, were very popular and perhaps helped convince him that there was indeed a profitable and aesthetically respectable future in such engravings.
It is no slur on Hogarth’s personal inventiveness and industriousness to say that he was fortunate to live in circumstances that favored the development and appreciation of his particular type of genius. Such important writers as Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and Henry Fielding helped to create an audience interested in, and a market capable of, supporting the kind of satire in which Hogarth excelled: concrete, detailed satire that could be savage or genial but was preeminently comic, always as entertaining as it was railing. It is no surprise that Hogarth’s achievement is often linked with those authors, in part because he accomplished in visual form what they accomplished in literary form. Nor is it any surprise that Hogarth’s first major success is associated with a literary work, whose tone and subject he captured perfectly: His painting of a scene from John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) coincided with the enormous popularity of that comically satiric play, brought him into contact with patrons who would support him by commissioning or buying paintings, and, perhaps more important, also gave him the confidence to develop his work in such a way that he might become independent of such patronage.
The crucial turning point of Hogarth’s career came when, after some success painting so-called conversation pictures of people and scenes of interest to upper-class art collectors, he dedicated himself to (in his own words) “painting and engraving modern moral Subjects.” These works typically involve a series of highly detailed pictures that tell a dramatic story about a person’s sudden rise and fall, and it is a sure sign of Hogarth’s skill that in a few carefully realized scenes he could reveal an astonishing amount about a character’s temperament, vices, social milieu, and fate. A Harlot’s Progress (1731-1732), for example, requires only six plates to follow a young country woman’s decline: from her arrival in town, which places her immediately in the hands of a bawdy woman; through several stages as an increasingly dependent, pathetic, and sickly prostitute; then finally to her funeral in a room filled with other prostitutes oblivious to the dismal lesson of her life. The moral intention may well have attracted many people to this work, although Hogarth is rarely “preachy,” and much of his satire presupposes a world that refuses to turn from its folly and wickedness. A Harlot’s Progress, though, instantly caught on for many reasons, not the least of which is that in it Hogarth expertly pictured a seedy but instantly recognizable part of London life and populated it with likenesses of real people who were currently infamous for their vices or crimes.
Because of its tremendous popularity, A Harlot’s Progress was not only imitated but also pirated, reproduced in editions that brought no profit to Hogarth or to his publisher. As a result, Hogarth delayed the publication of his next major work until the adoption of a parliamentary act in 1735 safeguarding at least minimal copyright protection for engravers. His active involvement in lobbying for this act illustrates his shrewd business sense and independence: Though he perhaps could have lived reasonably well supported by his wealthy patrons, he used these contacts to help devise and enact a law that would make such dependence unnecessary. His work in hand, The Rake’s Progress (1735), was not only an imaginative work of art but also a valuable property, and Hogarth was very careful about its marketing as well as its creation.
Analogous to A Harlot’s Progress, The Rake’s Progress follows a young man...
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