On this Print, Mr. Walpole observes, that "for wit and imagination, without any other end, this is the best of all our Artist's works;" and Mr. Lichtenberg, in his description of Hogarth's Prints, remarks, "Never, perhaps, since the graver and pencil have been employed in the service of Satire, has so much lively humour been compressed into so small a compass as here."
Though this Print receives its title from Female Performers only; there were, in the opinion of Mr. Steevens, at least four Representatives of the other sex; Apollo, Cupid, and two Male Devils. "May they not, however," asks Mr. Lichtenberg, "be apparently, yet not really, men?" The latter idea is probably correct; at least, it at all events harmonizes with Hogarth's title: but a company composed altogether of Female Performers is in itself truly whimsical, and not in conformity to custom.
The Scene is laid in a Barn, and intended to represent the Dressing-room of a Strolling Company. The time is Evening; and the Players from the London Theatres are preparing to perform a Farce, which by the Bill is declared to be "The Devil to pay in Heaven; being the last time of acting before the Act commences."
The Dramatis Personae on the Bill are, Jupiter, Diana, Flora, Juno, Night, Syren, Aurora, Eagle, Cupid, two Devils, Ghost, and Attendants; and most of the Deities are easily distinguishable.
On the left, seated on an inverted wheelbarrow, is Juno, studying her part; while her stocking is darned by the sable goddess Night. The old woman with one eye is generally considered to be intended for the Ghost; but Mr. John Ireland thought it was meant for the Tragic Muse. She is cutting off a cat's tail, to provide a sanguine stream for some murderous representation; while the feline sufferer is revenging itself on the poor Rope-dancer.
Two little Devils are seen fighting over a flagon of ale. In the centre of the Print is Diana, marked by the crescent. The chaste Goddess, dismantled of all her fortifications, is stepping into her hoop-petticoat; which perhaps had been already adjusted, but from the vehemence of her action has broken from its moorings. The Medusa's head on the shield seems horror-struck at the incident.
At her right sits the blooming Flora at her toilet, dressing her hair with a candle and dredger-box.
Apollo and Cupid are reaching down a pair of stockings hung to dry on a cloud.
On the ground is Aurora, employed in the service of the Syren, who offers the Hero, the female figure in male attire, who probably was intended for Ganymede, a glass of spirits. This the Cup-bearer of Jove gladly accepts, in the hope of relief from the tooth-ache.
In the appropriation of the female figure to Ganymede, Mr. Lichtenberg concurs; but a German Writer, in a critique on Lichtenberg, says, "It is neither Ganymede, nor has a tooth-ache. It is undoubtedly Jupiter himself, as is indicated by the Eagle and Crown at his feet. Ganymede is the Child, which the Bird is feeding; a highly entertaining perversion of the history of this beautiful Boy." That the eagle should be made to feed a brat on which it would doubtless feed itself is a happy idea.—In the opposite corner, a monkey is filthily degrading the helmet of Alexander.
The above are some of the more prominent features in this inimitable Print, which contains, in the whole, above seventy articles, or samples of articles; exclusive of various particulars too minute to identify, too numerous to particularize, or too curious to require elucidation.
Dr. Trusler, in his explanation of this Plate, attributes an unwarrantable meaning to the names of Oedipus and Jocasta, which appear above the heads of two figures among the theatrical lumber at the top of the Barn. But surely there is no cause for so far-fetched a supposition. Painted prodigies of this description were necessary to the performance of Lee's Oedipus. See Act II. where the following Stage-direction occurs, "The cloud draws, that veiled the heads of the figures in the sky, and shews them crowned, with the names of Oedipus and Jocasta written above, in great characters of gold." The magazine of dragons, clouds, scenes, flags, &c. or the woman half naked, was sufficient to attract the notice of the Rustick peeping through the thatch he might be employed to repair.
When this Plate was re-touched a second time, a variety of little changes were made in it. In the two earliest impressions the Actress who personates Flora is greasing her hair with a tallow candle, and preparing to powder herself, after her cap, feathers, &c. were put on. This solecism in the regular course of dress is removed in the third copy, the cap and ornaments being there omitted. The coiffure of the female who holds the cat is also lowered; and whereas at first we could read in the Play-bill depending from the truckle bed, that the part of Jupiter was to be performed by Mr. Bilk-village, an additional shade in the modern copy renders this part of the inscription illegible. Several holes likewise in the thatch of the Barn are filled up.
The original Painting was sold to Francis Beckford, Esq.for 27l. 6s.; by him, though at so low a price, returned; and afterwards sold for the same sum to Mr. Wood, of Littleton; and it remains in the possession of that gentleman's family.