These magnificent Prints are placed among the early productions of Hogarth, as the Paintings from which they are copied were completed in 1737; and in 1748 a small copy of the Pool of Bethesda was engraved by Ravenet, as a Frontispiece to Stackhouse's Family Bible.
Mr. Walpole observes, that "the burlesque turn of our Artist's mind mixed itself with his most serious compositions; and that, in the Pool of Bethesda, a servant of a rich ulcerated lady beats back a poor man (perhaps woman), who sought the same celestial remedy." To this I may add, that the figure of the Priest, in the Good Samaritan, is supremely comic, and rather resembles some purse-proud Burgomaster, than the character it was designed to represent.
In the Pool of Bethesda is introduced, as I was assured by Dr. Ducarel, a faithful portrait of Nell Robinson, a celebrated Courtezan, at whose shrine both Hogarth and the Doctor had in early life occasionally paid their devoirs.
On the subject of these two very fine Prints, it will not only be candid, but amusing and instructive, to transcribe Hogarth's own unvarnished remarks:
"As I could not bring myself to act like some of my Brethren, and make the painting of small Conversation-pieces a sort of a manufactory to be carried on by the help of Back-ground and Drapery Painters, it was not sufficiently profitable to pay the expences my family required. I therefore turned my thoughts to a still more novel trade, the painting and engraving modern moral subjects, a field not broken up in any country or any age. The reasons which induced me to adopt this mode of designing were, that I thought both Writers and Painters had, in the Historical style, totally overlooked that intermediate species of Subjects, which may be placed between the Sublime and Grotesque. I therefore wished to compose Pictures on canvas, similar to representations on the Stage; and farther hope that they will be tried by the same test, and criticised by the same criterion. Let it be observed, that I mean to speak only of those scenes where the human species are actors; and these, I think, have not often been delineated in a way of which they are worthy and capable. In these compositions, those subjects that will both entertain and improve the mind bid fair to be of the greatest public utility, and must therefore be entitled to rank in the highest class. If the execution is difficult (though that is but a secondary merit), the Author has a claim to a higher degree of praise. If this be admitted, Comedy, in Painting as well as Writing, ought to be allotted the first place, as most capable of all these perfections, though the Sublime, as it is called, has been opposed to it. Ocular demonstration will carry more conviction to the mind of a sensible man, than all he would find in a thousand volumes; and this has been attempted in the Prints I have composed. Let the decision be left to every unprejudiced eye; let the figures in either Pictures or Prints be considered as Players, dressed either for the Sublime—for genteel Comedy, or Farce—for high or low life. I have endeavoured to treat my subjects 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.
"Before I had done any thing of much consequence in this walk, I entertained some hopes of succeeding in what the puffers in books call the great style of History-painting; so that, without having had a stroke of this grand business before, I quitted small portraits and familiar conversations, and, with a smile at my own temerity, commenced History-painter; and, on a great staircase at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, painted two Scripture stories, the Pool of Bethesda and the Good Samaritan, with figures seven feet high. These I presented to the Charity; and thought they might serve as a specimen, to shew that, were there an inclination in England for encouraging; Historical Pictures, such a first essay might prove the painting them more easily attainable than is generally imagined. But as Religion, the great promoter of this style in other countries, rejected it in England, I was unwilling to sink into a Portrait-manufacturer; and, still ambitious of being singular, dropped all expectations of advantage from that source, and returned to the pursuit of my former dealings with the publick at large. This I found was most likely to answer my purpose, provided I could strike the passions, and, by small sums from many, by the sale of Prints which I could engrave from my own Pictures, thus secure my property to myself."
While these Pictures were in progress, it was announced that "among the Governors of St. Bartholomew's Hospital was lately chosen Mr. William Hogarth, the celebrated Painter, who, we are told, designs to paint the staircase of the said Hospital, and thereby become a benefactor to it by giving his labours gratis."
And a Newspaper of July 14, 1737, says, "Yesterday the scaffolding was taken down from before the Picture of the Good Samaritan, which is esteemed a very curious piece."
The Benefaction is thus recorded in the Hospital:
"The Historical Paintings of this staircase were painted and given by Mr. William Hogarth, and the ornamental Paintings at his expence, A. D. 1736."
Hogarth paid his friend Lambert for painting the landscape in this Picture; and to the imaginary merits of his Coadjutor, the Analysis, p. 26, thus bears testimony: "The sky always gradates one way or other, and the rising or setting sun exhibits it in great perfection; the imitating of which was Claude de Loraine's peculiar excellence, and it is now Mr. Lambert's."
Both Pictures, which appear of an oblong square in the Engravings, in the originals are surrounded with scroll-work which cuts off the corners of them, &c. All these ornaments, together with compartments carved at the bottom, were the work of Mr. Richards. These the late Mr. Alderman Boydell caused to be engraved on separate Plates, and appended to those above them, on which sufficient space had not been left.
Hogarth requested that these Paintings might never be varnished. They appear, therefore, to disadvantage, the decorations about them having, within these few years past, been highly glazed.
The Pool of Bethesda has suffered much from the sun; and the Good Samaritan, when cleaned about the year 1780, was pressed so hard against the straining frame, that several creases were made in the canvas.