By John Nichols, ESQ. FSA.
So much has already been written respecting the illustrious Artist who is the subject of the present memoir, that, were it not intended as a necessary accompaniment to this Edition of his works, a sketch of his life might seem to require some apology. It is not here professed to bring forward additional facts, but rather to examine generally his peculiar merits as an Artist, and to exhibit, within a moderate compass, the opinions of his various Commentators; connecting this criticism with such a brief outline of his life as may serve to give a biographical form to the whole.
England is justly proud of having given birth to two men of kindred excellence, and of unrivalled genius, of each of whom it may be said, that he neither found a predecessor, nor left a successor, in the track which he pursued, Each was eminently gifted with the talent of pourtraying humour, passion, and feelings, in all their varying shades, with a felicity that seems to mock competition :—it is hardly necessary to add the names of Shakspeare and Hogarth (1).
Hogarth like Shakspeare, has been a fertile theme to Biographers, Critics, Commentators, and Illustrators. As there is hardly a syllable in the works of the one that has not been the subject of a remark, or a note, so there is scarcely an incident or a figure in the productions of the other that has not been explained or noticed. Even this external evidence of their superior merit, alone, carries conviction; for, however fashion, prejudice, admiration of novelty, or some other circumstance, may for a while cause even extended reputation, it cannot be permanently secured through successive generations, unless founded upon qualities productive of lasting interest. The bulk of productions, whether in Literature or in Art, must necessarily be brief in their existence. Among these scintillations that gleam and disappear, it is only the few and mighty master-minds that are stars shining in that firmament where they have been fixed by the apotheosis of their genius.
In discussing the merits of men like Hogarth, criticism naturally assumes the tone of eulogium: they who should preside as judges at a tribunal, prostrate themselves as worshippers before a shrine. Enthusiasm must not, however, be permitted to usurp the place of discrimination; nor is it necessary to claim for one who possesses so many excellencies, those to which his pretensions appear somewhat disputable. Although a perfect master of Expression, and well able to depict that majesty of the passion which arises from their vividness and energy, he could not, like our great Poet, array them with equal success either in a humble or dignified garb. His powers were less universal; for, though they were great, their range was more limited. In historical composition he did not even to a respectable mediocrity; yet this is no disparagement of his merits, nor is it half so surprising as that the author of “Tom Jones,” Who was gifted with such extraordinary talent for comic writing, should have uniformly failed when he attempted Comedy. And it is well for the fame of our Artist, that, instead of proving a successful follower in a beaten track, he boldly struck into one that was new and unexplored.
Avia Pieridum peragrat loca, nullius antè
Trita solo: juvat integros accedere fontes.
Had he succeeded in the first case, he would have been merely one among the many: at present he is not only the first in that branch of art which he created, but stands there without a subsequent competitor of eminence.
To assert, however, that his productions possess the poetical beauties, and sublime expressions, that are to be found in the great Italian Masters, would be as imprudent as to claim for him that exquisite beauty and truth of execution which are characteristic of the Flemish School; and as absurd, as to deny him those peculiar merits which constitute his excellence, and have secured his fame. Elegance of composition and picturesque effect were but secondary considerations with one whose principal object was not so much to flatter the eye with forms of majesty and beauty, or the splendour of colouring, the magic of chiaro-scuro and deceptive imitation, as to inform the mind;—to pourtray human nature, rather ethically than poetically, exhibiting Man, the creature not only of Nature but of Society, with all his vices and his follies, his errors and his weaknesses. This being his aim, he regarded forms themselves less than the meaning which they are capable of conveying; so that as one of his most zealous admirers has observed, "other Pictures we look at— Hogarth's Prints we read."
William Hogarth was born in London, November 10, 1697. His early prospects were far from promising; for his father, who kept a school in the parish of St. Martin, Ludgate, was not able to do more toward his future provision in life, than to put him in the way of shifting for himself. Having a spontaneous turn for drawing, he chose the profession of an Engraver of cyphers and coats of arms on plate. As soon as his apprenticeship was expired, he entered into the Academy in St. Martin's Lane, where he studied from the living figure. He supported himself at this period of his life by engraving arms and shop-bills, and it was sometime before he emerged from obscurity, or was at all noticed as an Artist. From 1723 to about 1730, he was employed upon designs and plates for a variety of publications, among which were thirteen folio prints in Aubry de la Motraye's Travels; seven small ones for Apuleius in 1724; five frontispieces for Cassandra; seventeen cuts for a duodecimo edition of Hudibras in 1726, and a variety of others. None of these performances are at all superior to the common book embellishments of that period, which is certainly not saying much in their favour: but though the sun of his Genius arose obscured, its meridian and setting beams were fervid and brilliant. Even the set of Plates which he executed for Hudibras, although the best of these works, exhibit no very strong traits of humour; yet it might be supposed that such a poem would, at a more mature age and in easier circumstances, have been illustrated by him with congenial talent.
About the year 1728 he commenced the profession of Painter: his subjects were small groups of family portraits, or conversation pieces. One of these, painted for Earl Tylney, and containing portraits of that Nobleman and his family, is well known under the denomination of the "Wanstead Assembly." This composition, which is said to have been his first performance in this line that attracted public notice, is very much in the style of Watteau; as is likewise his “View of the Mall in St. James's Park.” Yet, although he painted several portraits and groups, he was not destined to succeed in a branch of his profession requiring address, delicacy and flattery. The pencil of Hogarth was too uncourtly to attempt to embellish the traits which Nature had given: it delighted rather in heightening than subduing character, however unfavourable that character might be.
An anecdote is recorded of him which sufficiently proves this. A Nobleman, not remarkable either for the regularity of his features or the gracefulness of his person, felt aggrieved at the verity with which the Artist had depicted him, and refused to take the picture; nor would he have done so had it not been for a threat that, unless the money was sent in the course of three days, the portrait should be exhibited in a manner most wounding to the self-love of the original.
When he first began to publish his Plates on his own account, they were pirated by the Dealers, who combined for that purpose, and, by vending their copies at a lower price, prevented him from reaping the reward due to his labours; so that he was glad to dispose of his plates for whatever they chose to give him, there being no law to protect the copy-right of Engravings. At a subsequent period, therefore, he himself, in conjunction with Vertue, Pine, and some other Artists, successfully petitioned Parliament for an Act to secure their property, and to prevent copies being made without the consent of the Artist, for the term of fourteen years.
About two years after the appearance of "The Harlot's Progress," our Artist produced another series of Plates called "The Rake’s Progress." As in the former he had depicted the shame and ruin attendant upon a life of prostitution, so in the latter he conveyed a moral lesson equally useful, by delineating the fatal consequences of profligacy and debauchery in the other sex; and shewed how they may conduct to an end still more horrible than that of the friendless, deserted, and abhorred prostitute; and the first Plate is as severe a satire upon the folly of avarice, as the succeeding ones are on that of heedless dissipation and profusion. In these engravings there is a still greater abundance of wit than in those of the preceding series. The Painter comes here more immediately into contact with the fashionable vices of high life, not, however so Completely as in his "Marriage-à-la-mode." It might be supposed that so much wit would in some degree destroy the principal effect; but this is by no means the case, for the humour is kept down so as not to predominate in an offensive manner, or border on caricature. No Artist in fact is more distant from mere unmeaning buffoonery and grimace than Hogarth, who though eminently gifted with a sense of the ridiculous, yet at the same time possessed as powerful a feeling for Nature in all its varying expressions. The "quicquid agunt Homines" may be applied with great propriety to his works, since they present an epitome of humanity in all its shapes.
After an interval of nine years appeared the third of Hogarth's admirable graphic dramas, the "Marriage-à-la-mode." As in the two preceding ones he had exhibited the fatal effects of abandoned habits and profligacy in the unmarried of either sex, so did he here pourtray, in a manner equally forcible, the calamities which result from vicious indulgences and depraved conduct in connubial life. And, as if to point out that happiness or misery, virtue or guilt, is increased by participation with others, and incurs a double reward or penalty, he has brought both the guilty hero and his equally criminal partner, to a tragic end: nor must it be forgotten that her ladyship's paramour meets a fate more ignominious than that of either.
Not one of these three admirable works can be classed as belonging decidedly either to, Comedy or Tragedy; and this circumstance is doubtless a great fault in the estimation of those who prefer the rules and theories of Criticism to those of Nature. But neither Shakspeare nor Hogarth composed for systematic Critics, or had any idea of working according to their compass and rule. Rules are for meaner artists: they are mere mechanical aids and succedanea, for which Genius has no more occasion than grown-up persons for leading-strings; or those who enjoy the use of their limbs for crutches. Nay, such theories and rules may as frequently be compared to the latter as to the former, for they as often denote the imbecility arising from decay as that which precedes matured vigour. Independently of the excellence of these productions in other respects, they possess strong interest arising from the valuable information they supply respecting the manners and fashions of the age to which they belong, and which they so faithfully pourtray. They transport the beholder to the period whose manners have been so incomparably delineated by Fielding and Smollett; and we may almost fancy that we here meet with many of their characters. The former of these eminent writers has borne ample testimony to the merits of Hogarth, in his preface to "Joseph Andrews."
If there be any thing in the "Marriage-à-la-mode to which criticism may justly object, it is undoubtedly the obscurity of the subject of the third Plate, and its want of sufficient connection with the principal action of the piece:—unless it be intended by way of companion to the succeed- ing Plate, and to point out the congeniality of pursuits between this modish couple. No language can better describe the wretched languor that succeeds to dissipation, or how much it degrades the faculties, than the characteristic figures of the Husband and Wife in the second scene. In short, this drama depicts the fashionable extravagances of that day with great fidelity and humour.
Soon after the publication of the "Marriage-à-la-mode, a poem appeared in Hudibrastic verse, in six Cantos, each Canto being explanatory of one of the Plates. It has been said that the admirable Comedy of the "Clandestine Marriage" is founded upon these engravings; yet the resemblance between the pictorial and the written Drama is too slight to warrant such a supposition. The latter would doubtless have been produced, had the former never existed, since the only point of similitude between the two, is the circumstance of a matrimonial alliance, wherein the parties barter gold and nobility.
Between this and the preceding series (which have been noticed together, as belonging, more expressly than his other productions, to the same class,) Hogarth published in the year 1738 his excellent Plates, "Morning, Noon, Evening, and Night;" besides one, to which Mr. Walpole assigns the palm of superiority over all his other works, "for wit and imagination, without any other end." This was his "Strolling Actresses;" a Print which certainly possesses an infinitude of whimsical combinations, and smart satire. So far, however, is Mr. Lamb from concurring with the opinion of that celebrated Critic, that he affirms it to be lamentably poor in living character and expression, and perhaps the only one of Hogarth's performances at which we have a right to feel disgusted. And yet it must be acknowledged, that it affords a rich banquet for those who enjoy facetiousness, and that species of humour which is produced by odd contrasts, and the hieroglyphical language of symbol.
At the period of the publication of the "Marriage-à-la-mode," the reputation of our Artist may be considered as having attained its zenith. His works were popular beyond any precedent, for their subjects could be enjoyed by all: while their pleasantly and general humour were intelligible to the meanest capacities; and interesting because taken from common life, they at the same time possessed wit capable of delighting the most fastidious, and a knowledge of human nature deserving to be studied by the most intelligent and reflective. Their popularity of course attracted the cupidity of Print-dealers; and in order to secure the property of himself and others against their nefarious practices, Hogarth, as has been before stated, applied to Parliament in the year 1735. He thus secured to himself the emoluments arising from his sale of the Plates, which were eagerly purchased by the public; yet finding it not so easy to dispose of his Pictures, he determined, in 1745, to offer them by auction, or sale, according to a particular scheme which he devised. The Paintings were the entire series of both the “Harlot's” and the "Rake's Progress," the four subjects," Morning, Noon, Evening, and Night," and the "Strolling Actresses dressing in a Barn," which altogether produced no more than £.427. 7s. By way of Ticket of admission to the sale, he engraved the if Battle of the Pictures," of which not only the idea is ingenious, and characteristic of the Artist's contempt for the prejudice in favour of the Old Masters, or rather spurious imitations of them; but the manner in which he executed it, although so trifling a subject, discovers exquisite pleasantry in the way in which he has opposed the various combatants to each other: of this there is a sufficient proof in the assault made by a St. Francis upon the Old Maid in the Picture of "Morning," and in the resemblance, or rather the contrast, which Hogarth thus suggests, between the Catholic Saint and his own sanctified Prude.
About this period, and after the completion of the "Marriage-à-la-mode," he projected, as a companion to that series, another, which was to represent the happiness of connubial life when founded on mutual affection and esteem. Hogarth made a coloured sketch of the first scene of his "Happy Marriage," but never completed the design. Yet, although a mind like his would doubtless have elicited humour from the tamest and most barren subjects, it must be confessed that this was little calculated to exhibit his peculiar forte. Pictures of tranquillity, harmony, and propriety, presented little to a pencil that more delighted to exhibit the failings or the imperfect virtues of mankind, than either scenes or actions divested of all absurdity and ridicule. Domestic tranquillity has always been considered as a rather insipid subject, whether on the canvass or on the stage. There was, however, some scope for his peculiar talent in the first scene, which represented the new-married couple and their friends partaking of refreshments after their return from church; and the Painter indulged more particularly in an episodical part of the composition: this was a groupe consisting of a Cook, and a portly Divine in his canonicals, who was giving directions as to the culinary operations of the day; and here he evidently laboured more con amore than on the foremost and principal characters. It was in allusion to our Artist's propensity to delineate the low, rather than the gaiety of comic subjects, that Churchill observed, with more energy than delicacy, that Hogarth painted only the backside of Nature.
In 1746, he executed a Plate, the subject of which was so popular, that although the rolling-press was employed uninterruptedly for the first week, it could not supply the impressions sufficiently fast to satisfy the eager demand of the public: yet the interest of this production arose merely from incidental and political circumstances, it being no other than the portrait of the Rebel Laird, Lord Lovat. His next work of importance, and the most extended, though the least elaborate of his dramatic series, "Industry and Idleness," was published about two years afterwards. In these designs, the principal aim of the Artist was to produce a popular work that should be as efficacious in instructing and reforming the numerous class of persons to whom it was more immediately addressed, as his other masterly productions had been in holding up to ridicule and reprobation the follies and dissipation of those of a higher rank. "The Harlot's Progress" was a forcible moral lesson to the young and indiscreet of the female sex, pointing out the wretched consequences of a deviation from virtue, and the misery that sooner or later inevitably overtakes the victims of prostitution, after a brief course — not of happiness, but of wild pleasure and riot. The purpose of the present set of Plates was to inculcate salutary admonitions upon the youth of the other sex moving in a less elevated sphere than the Prodigal whose history formed more immediately a counterpart to that of the unfortunate Harlot. The plan of this series is more complex, and was therefore of necessity more extended, since in this double history one part is the complete antithesis of the other. These subjects are, however, undeniably less impregnated with either that playful or that caustic humour, and that happy wit, which are so predominant in his preceding works; and the traits of genius and expression are not only fewer but less vigorous.
In the opinion, however, of Mr. Lamb, even here are to be discovered marks of superior powers. "If," says he, "an image of natural love be required, where shall we find a sublimer view of it than in that aged woman in Industry and Idleness, who is clinging with the fondness of hope, not quite extinguished, to her brutal, vice-hardened child,—in whose shocking face every trace of the human countenance seems obliterated, and a brute beast's to be left instead, shocking and repulsive to all but her who watched over it in its cradle before it was so sadly altered, and feels it must belong to her while a pulse shall be suffered by the vindictive laws of his country to continue to beat in it?" This is, indeed, a warm and feeling eulogium, one that confers honour both on the Artist who calls it forth, and the Critic who utters it; yet, it must not be concealed, that the impassioned description of the latter, has considerably heightened the effect produced in the original by the burin of the former.
The next production of importance by which Hogarth distinguished himself was, the "Roast Beef of Old England," which perhaps acquired as much popularity from its falling in with national prejudices, as from its own intrinsic merit. The circumstance which gave rise to this piece of satire was the apprehension of the Artist as a spy, while he was making a drawing of the Gate of Calais, on his visit to France, shortly after the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle. Hogarth undoubtedly had strong prejudices, which may in a great measure be imputed to the want of a more liberal education: among these was his rancorous and indiscriminate dislike of every tiling in the shape of Connoisseurship, and an attempt to disparage those higher walks of the Art—that is, higher in regard to grandeur and dignity of subject—in which he himself had failed, and failed too most egregiously. "It is apparent," says an elegant Biographer (4) whose competence to judge will be conceded by all who know his own excellence in the art," that he at no time of his life understood the object or character of that species of art, and was therefore ill-qualified to judge of its merit." In like manner, his Antigallican antipathies were excited by every thing he beheld in France, of which country he expressed himself in terms more energetic than courtly. That their taste in cookery incurred his strong reprobation, is evident, from the ridicule which, on every opportunity, he casts upon their frogs and soup-maigre, and upon the carrion-like figures which he has bestowed upon the natives of that country. Indeed, from more than one circumstance, we might suppose, that tenuity and obesity were, to Hogarth's
imagination, one of the seven deadly sins, and one of the cardinal virtues, so forcibly would he impress us with the conviction that the former is as certain a sign of rascality as the latter of honesty.
About this period Hogarth purchased a small house at Chiswick, which now became his chief place of abode, although he still retained his residence in Leicester Fields, and in 1750 he published his celebrated "March to Finchley;" the original painting of which he disposed of by Lottery. This production, of which a very circumstantial description will be found to accompany the Plate, is replete with bustle and with incidents of the most lively and ludicrous description; nor is it deficient in several of those keen strokes of satire which were peculiarly our Artist's forte. It is, indeed, abundant in invention, nor can we sufficiently admire the skill with which so much interest is imparted to such a variety of groupes; each sufficiently important to form a separate subject. The circumstances attending the dedication of this print are noticed in the accompanying explanation. This was the only production with which Hogarth favoured the admirers of his genius in 1750 jj in the following year, however, he was more prolific, for he then published "Beer Street" and "Gin Lane," the "Four Stages of Cruelty," and the burlesque print of "Paul before Felix." The merits of "Gin Lane" have been so fully pointed out and expatiated upon by Mr. Lamb, who has dwelt upon its beauties with enthusiasm, that any subsequent eulogium must appear cold by comparison with the glowing terms of commendation which he applies to this performance. For expression, and for the poetry of imagination, he assigns to it the very foremost class, and even prefers it to Poussin's celebrated Plague at Athens. This conglomeration of horrors may be considered as a continued allegorical representation, and as embodying to the eye all the shapes of misery arising from the pernicious habit it was intended to correct, and than which none can be more destructive, either to the bodily powers or the mental faculties.
Whether Hogarth was equally happy in enforcing the excellence of Beer, may be doubted, although, it cannot certainly be denied, that there is an air of joyousness in the subject, that renders it an exhilarating contrast to its companion, and all due honour is paid to his favourite jollity and rotundity of person. With respect to the "Stages of Cruelty," the excellent Critic who has been just mentioned condemns them as very inferior performances, terming them, "mere worthless caricatures, foreign to Hogarth's general habit, the offspring of his fancy in some wayward humour." There is in them too much of unmixed horror, —and the gratification they are capable of affording partakes too nearly of that derived from witnessing an execution; the spectator in some degree reproaches himself for enduring to behold human nature so degraded. It may moreover be questioned, whether such representations do not tend as much to familiarize with the contemplation of suffering, and to stimulate in some a depraved curiosity, as to impress a due abhorrence of such cruelties. But we now turn to the Artist in a happier mood.
In the preceding year Hogarth had painted, for the Hall of Lincoln's Inn, his Picture of "Paul before Felix," for which he obtained a commission, through the interest of his friend Lord Mansfield, who, when £.200 were bequeathed by Lord Wyndham for the purpose of ornamenting the Hall, proposed that Hogarth should be employed for that purpose. This painting, and that of "Moses before Pharaoh's Daughter" at the Foundling Hospital, were engraved by him; and by way of receipt for the subscriptions to the two Plates, he produced his "Burlesque Print" of the former subject, probably intended to set off the dignity of the original composition, by contrasting it with the absurdly ludicrous ones of the Dutch Masters. The drollery of the Caricature, however, was more Hogarthian, and better relished by the public, than the original, which certainly does not possess sufficient merit to prevent us from regretting that the Painter was impelled by his ambition to deviate into a walk so little congenial with his habits, and so little favourable to the display of his peculiar talent.
It was on this occasion that Dr. Warton, in the first edition of his "Essay on Pope," in a note on the line,
One science only will one genius fit,
quoted Hogarth himself as an example of the truth of this maxim, and indulged in some reflections on his incapacity for serious and dignified subjects, thereby exciting the Artist's indignation. The latter retaliated in kind, by exhibiting in one of his prints a publication of the Doctor's in no very honourable situation. Through the interference, however, of Mr. Garrick and Dr. John Hoadly, a reconciliation was effected: and in a subsequent edition Warton not only qualified his observation, but added to it a most handsome compliment on the Artist's genius.
At the latter end of 1752 appeared his print of "Columbus breaking the Egg," as a Subscription Ticket to his "Analysis of Beauty." This was also intended to illustrate the extreme simplicity of the Theory laid down in that treatise, notwithstanding which no one had before detected it. The Analysis itself appeared in the following year j the object of this work is to endeavour to lay down some fixed principle of beauty, and this Hogarth thought could be invariably referred to a waving or serpentine line, which he therefore denominated the Line of Beauty On the whole this must be allowed to be tolerably satisfactory; curved lines being in general more beautiful than either strait or angular ones: yet the theory must be accepted with some limitation, since it accounts for merely one, not the sole cause of what is termed Beauty, which may be defined to be that quality in objects by means of which they excite pleasing emotions. Hogarth's doctrine, therefore, is correct and satisfactory as far as it goes, but it does not advance far enough: it is too contracted and partial; for while it explains much, it also leaves much unexplained. The sources of Beauty are indeed so various and complicated, that every attempt to reduce them to any single principle except that of association, has proved nugatory, and has foiled the ability of the most ingenious.
Being ill-qualified by his education for any literary performance Hogarth submitted his manuscript to the corrections of his friend Dr Morell; and, after his decease, to those of the Rev. Mr Townley, the Head-Master of Merchant Taylors' School. The Plates to the work present some ludicrous contrasts between the stiff and preposterous dresses then in fashion, and the easy elegance of the antique. Such a Roman costume as that in which Quin is here exhibited, is almost incredible: the fashions of that period were certainly absurd —not because so opposite to those of the present day, but because so contradictory to those principles of sound taste which teach us that dress is intended to cover and to decorate, not to disguise the human form, or destroy its proportions. It was, however, easier for Hogarth to hold absurdity up to ridicule than to pourtray gracefulness and elegance; accordingly in the dancing scene, in the second Plate, he has not been eminently successful in the couple who are intended as specimens of grace, and as contrasts to the other groupes. The Lady, too, possesses as little of natural beauty as of acquired elegance. To paint beauty was not the Artist's forte: this even his wannest admirers must allow; and they may do so the more readily, conscious that they will thereby no more detract from the genuine merits of Hogarth than they do from the masterly eloquence of Cicero by refusing to admire his wretched attempts at poetry.
(1) "I was pleased with the reply of a gentleman, who, being asked what book he esteemed most in his library, answered, 'Shakspeare;' being asked which he esteemed next best, replied, 'Hogarth.'" Lamb's Essay on the Genius and Character of Hogarth.
(2) See Nichols's "Biographical Anecdotes of Hogarth," vol. I. p. 522.
(3) Ibid. vol. III. P. 130.
(4) T. Phillips, Esq. R.A.
Pour citer ces ressources :
Clifford Armion, ed. 09/2012. "Biographical essay on the genius and works of Hogarth (Part I)".
La Clé des Langues (Lyon: ENS LYON/DGESCO). ISSN 2107-7029. Mis à jour le 23 novembre 2012.
Consulté le 24 mars 2017.
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