Hogarth, William

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Hogarth, William (1697-1764): English Printmaker and Painter.

William Hogarth was England’s greatest graphic artist of the eighteenth century, best known for his pictorial stories termed Modern Moral Subjects. Born in London to parents of modest means, Hogarth started adult life as an engraver, doing greeting cards and book illustrations. In the 1720s, he learned to paint and began creating artworks of astonishing vitality and originality that would leave a lasting imprint on English culture.

Hogarth was able to reach a mass audience by making engravings of his paintings and selling the prints at low prices. He thus created art not mainly for aristocratic patrons, but for what scholars of the Enlightenment term “the public sphere,” a community of reasoning individuals from different classes who came together in public spaces or through the medium of print to reflect on issues of general concern. Hogarth’s work dynamically influenced the public sphere, which evolved into an entity capable of generating new ideas and challenging beliefs supported by the state.

Hogarth’s early paintings were family portraits: The Wollaston Family (1730), The Jones Family (1730-31), The Cholmondeley Family (1732). These are noteworthy for their focus on the virtues of sociability--the manners and values needed for membership in polite society and the public sphere. A Midnight Modern Conversation (1733), a print depicting scene of drunken revelers, presents Hogarth’s comic vision of improper sociability.

In 1732 Hogarth produced his first Modern Moral Subject, A Harlot’s Progress. This set of six paintings shows the fate of a country girl, Moll Hackabout, who arrives in London and falls into a life of prostitution. After first prospering, she soon ends up in prison, ill, and dead. The pictures tell both a moral tale of Moll’s turn to vice and a satiric one of those who conspire in Moll’s demise--clergymen, doctors, and justice officials. The guardians of society, Hogarth reveals, are as culpable in the ruination of young women like Moll as the women themselves.

Other Modern Moral Subjects succeeded Harlot. In 1733-34 Hogarth painted A Rake’s Progress, which follows Tom Rakewell, a young man who squanders his inheritance in pursuit of pleasure and finds himself (like Moll) imprisoned, diseased, and finally insane. In 1745 Hogarth painted his masterpiece, Marriage a la Mode, which tracks a doomed marriage between a son from a financially troubled patrician family and a daughter from a rich bourgeois family. Like Tom and Moll, the married couple is aided down the path of self-destruction by others (greedy parents, lawyers, quacks) and by larger cultural pressures--such as the pressure to engage in a decadent mode of living. In 1748 Hogarth’s produced Industry and Idleness, a print series aimed at the young that outlines the paths to success or doom. Another print series, The Four Stages of Cruelty (1751), reveals how individuals become cruel as it follows a boy’s growth to adulthood.

While the range of Hogarth’s oeuvre is great--he created portraits (Captain Coram 1740, Bishop Hoadley 1741), religious paintings (Paul before Felix 1748, The Ascension, 1757), history painting (Sigismunda 1759), and an aesthetic treatise (The Analysis of Beauty 1753)--he is most admired as a satirist. As works like his Modern Moral Subjects illustrate, Hogarth cast a powerful critical light on modern life, delineating its attractions and dangers, exposing hypocrites and corruption (his Four Prints of an Election, 1754-58, presents a superb analysis of electoral chicanery), and showing the moral obligations each member of society owes to others.

Hogarth’s originality lay in his ability to fuse high and low art. While Hogarth treated ordinary (“low”) figures set in everyday scenes, his work possessed all the sophistication of high art. A typical Hogarthian scene is crowded with details that allude to contemporary issues and classical and biblical traditions. This dense allusivity allowed Hogarth to create meaningful links between his story and those he quoted--links that endowed his work with extraordinary thematic richness. The fusion of high and low also enabled Hogarth to revitalize older traditions. His Four Times of the Day (1737-38), for example, brilliantly reworks various well-worn tropes and genres.

Hogarth’s influence on English art and culture has been immense. He shaped public opinion, founded modern pictorial satire, and redefined what art is. His championing of English artists and criticism of French culture (memorably expressed in The Gate of Calais 1749) encouraged contemporaries to be less wedded to Continental aesthetics. He has been credited with establishing a distinctly English artistic tradition and advancing the development of English nationalism.

Further Reading:

Ronald Paulson, Hogarth, 3 vols., 1991.

Jenny Uglow, Hogarth: A life and a World, 1997.

Terence Bowers

College of Charleston