Biographical essay on the genius and works of Hogarth
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.
The year 1730 was marked by an important event in the domestic history of our Artist; this was his marriage with Jane, the only daughter of Sir James Thornhill, the Historical Painter, with whom he became acquainted by attending her father's academy opened at his house in Covent Garden. This union was made without the previous knowledge of the lady's parents; and at first the knight was little pleased at a match which he considered derogatory to his family, and by no means adequate to his daughter's prospects; nor was he for some time disposed to forgive them. A reconciliation was, however, afterwards effected through the mediation of Lady Thornhill, who advised her daughter to place in her father's way some of the scenes of the "Harlot's Progress," which Hogarth was then painting. Struck with the merit of these performances, Sir James expressed his approbation, but in such a manner as shewed that his satisfaction arose from the consideration that the talents of his son-in-law would enable him to support his wife: afterwards, however, he relented, and behaved with generosity towards his daughter and her husband. At the period of his marriage Hogarth had lodgings at South Lambeth, and being intimate with Mr. Tyers, the proprietor of Vauxhall, he advised him to embellish his Garden with paintings. This was accordingly done, and some of the designs were furnished by Hogarth himself.
Not long afterwards appeared his print called "The Man of Taste," intended as a Satire upon Kent, Lord Burlington, that artist's patron, and Pope. The two former of these had before fallen under his lash, in his Plate of Burlington Gate; and the cause assigned for his dislike towards them was, his Lordship's preference of Kent to Thornhill, and his procuring the former to be employed in painting the palace at Kensington. Whether he had any pique against the Poet is not known; perhaps he made use of him merely as a vehicle for his satire, and as being a distinguished character. Certain it is, that however ill the Bard might relish this performance, or might feel the poignancy of its wit, he was too discreet to manifest any resentment, or to attempt a retort, well aware that his person was not of a description to withstand the ridicule that might be cast upon it by the pencil, or to enter into a contest, of which the result would inevitably prove an exposure of his bodily deformity. That Pope, however, really bore him no good-will, in consequence of his attacks, is rendered highly probable by his abstaining from any allusion to, or mention of, one who was a keen satirist of the follies and vices of the age; and between whom and himself there might be supposed to exist much congeniality of talent and disposition. But at this period Hogarth had not put forth all his powers, nor produced any of those great works which have secured for him immortal fame, and reflected on his minor compositions a reputation which they would not otherwise have obtained.
In the Spring of the year 1732 Hogarth made an excursion to Rochester and Sheerness, with four friends, Thomhill, his brother-in-law, Scott, the Landscape-painter, Tothall(2), and Forrest(3). The latter of these undertook to be the Historian of their adventures, and drew up a humorous narrative of this impromptu tour, intended as a satire upon the uninteresting and impertinent details committed to paper by travellers; while Hogarth and Scott were the draftsmen on this expedition. This literary and graphic curiosity has been given to the public by Mr. Nichols, in the third or supplementary volume of the "Biographical Anecdotes," as has likewise a poetical version of the same narrative, written by the Rev. W. Gostling, at the end of the first volume.
In the following year appeared the first of those three admirable graphic Dramas which created a new epoch in the Art to which they belong, and conferred upon their author the pre-eminent appellation of a Great Ethic Painter,—namely "The Harlot's Progress," "The Rake's Progress," and "Marriage-à-la-mode." In the former of these he has presented an awful lesson, inculcated in the history of an unfortunate female, who, passing through a career checquered by pleasure, splendour, profligacy, misery, and disease, terminates her life prematurely,—if indeed she can be justly said to expire prematurely who has long survived the wreck of her peace and her hopes; whose existence is regarded as a nuisance by society; and whose death excites neither regret nor remorse in the companions of her shame and her guilt. It has been observed, that this drama does not possess that completeness which might have been given to it, the transitions from one scene to another being too sudden, and without those intermediate events being presented to our notice which are necessary to connect them. There is, it must be allowed, a striking contrast between the first and second plates: in the one we behold an innocent country girl, in the next we see her transformed into a wily courtesan, a finished adept in all the arts of intrigue. It may, however, be observed, that it perhaps would have been difficult to select such scenes as would not have been offensive in the representation; and that it is impossible for the pencil, like the pen, to produce an uninterrupted narrative, or a complete concatenation of events. It is not intended here to particularize the individual subjects, or to enter into a detailed comment upon them; for such information we refer to our descriptive text. A few remarks, however, may be expected:— the Artist has not been eminently successful in imparting to his Heroine any very considerable attractions of feature, or of person. Hogarth was the Analyser, not the Painter, of Beauty. This circumstance need not, however, occasion any very serious regret, since never was there an Artist who more completely atones for his deficiency in this respect, or causes it to be less felt. In the second Plate, the expression of the lady's coun- tenance does not accord exactly with her threatening gesture; this ought not, however, to be imputed to the Artist as a defect, but rather be mentioned as a proof of his judgment, her anger being merely assumed, and her violence employed for no other purpose than to favour the retreat of her gallant. Another proof of his attention to probability is shewn in the third Plate, where the cat is introduced, by no means at random; since, were it not for the appearance of this animal with whom the Heroine is amusing herself, there would be no motive for her holding up the watch; and without this the spectator would be ignorant of the immediate cause of her being apprehended by the executors of the Law. But it is, perhaps, after all, not so much in the conduct of the principal action, as in the episodical parts of his compositions, and his hors-d'oeuvres, that Hogarth's forte and principal merit consist. In some of these incidental strokes of wit there is more point and significancy than decency; for instance, in the coat of arms displayed in the funeral scene, and the manner in which the wretch in the garb of a Clergyman is holding his glass. The rod, too, which is suspended at the head of the bed, in the third Plate, has drawn forth certain remarks from Hogarth's German commentator, Lichtenberg, which expose this apparently innocent and insignificant object to suspicions of a no very decorous nature.
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.
His "Analysis of Beauty" drew upon him much persecution at the time of its appearance; and involved him in squabbles productive of vexation and irritation. A German translation of this work by Mylius, who executed it under the Author's inspection, was published in London; and an improved edition afterwards appeared at Berlin in 1754, by Fr. Vok, accompanied with an explanation of Hogarth's satirical Prints from the French. An Italian translation, also, was published at Leghorn in 1761.
About this period, in consequence of the public attention bestowed upon the Painting presented to the Foundling Hospital by Hogarth, the Academy in St. Martin's Lane began to form themselves into a more important body, and to teach the Arts under regular Professors. But, extraordinary as it may appear, this scheme was so far from being welcomed by Hogarth as indicative of a brighter sera in the Fine Arts, that he absolutely discouraged it, as tending to allure many young men into a profession in which they would not be able to support themselves, and at the same time to degrade what ought to be a liberal profession into a merely mechanical one.
In the interval between the "Analysis" and the "Election Prints," which (with the exception of the fourth, not completed till 1758) appeared in 1755, our Artist produced nothing of importance, his only works being the "Frontispiece to Kirby's Perspective," and a Plate entitled "Crowns, Mitres, Maces, &c." The Frontispiece is a whimsical collection of the most absurd solecisms against the rules of Perspective, such as no one could possibly commit. The other Plate, which was originally intended as a compliment to Parliament for the protection afforded by them to the Copyright of Engravings, was altered so as to serve as a Subscription Ticket to the Series of Election Prints.
The first of this excellent set of Plates, the "Election Entertainment," is dated Feb. 24, 1755. Of this subject Mr. Lamb speaks in the following rapturous terms of commendation: "In that inimitable Print (which in my judgment as far exceeds the more known and celebrated "March to Finchley" as the best Comedy exceeds the best Farce that ever was written), let a person look till he be saturated; and when he has done wondering at the inventiveness of genius which could bring so many characters (more than thirty distinct classes of face) into a room, and set them down at table together, or otherwise dispose them about, in so natural a manner, engage them in so many easy sets and occupations, yet all partaking of the spirit of the occasion which brought them together, so that we feel that nothing but an Election-time could have assembled them: —when he shall have done wondering at all these faces so strongly charactered, yet finished with the accuracy of the finest miniature; when he shall have done admiring the numberless appendages of the scene, those gratuitous doles which rich genius flings into the heap when it has already done enough; the dumb rhetoric of the scenery —for tables, and chairs, and joint stools, are, in Hogarth, living and significant things: —when he shall have sufficiently admired this wealth of genius, let him fairly say what is the result left on his mind." For the whole of this eloquent criticism the Reader must be referred to the Essay itself, from the perusal of which he will rise with an entire conviction that Hogarth was a genuine painter of Human Nature in all its modifications, and as capable of exciting generous sentiments, as of entertaining by his humour and his wit. This Series was published at different intervals, the second Plate not appearing until two years after the first, and the third and fourth at the beginning of the year 1758. Other works, however, were produced in the interim; in 1756 his "France," and "England," two Prints etched by himself: in these Hogarth appears to have indulged in his spleen, or his patriotism, against the French nation. Nothing can be imagined more antithetical than these two companion Prints, as to the subjects exhibited, although they certainly accord admirably as to their object, namely, to turn the Grand Monarque and his armies into ridicule. The puny and haggard forms of the French are strongly contrasted with the ample persons of the English; nor are their respective signs, "Soup Meagre," and "Roast and Boiled every Day," less speakingly opposed to each other. In all that concerned national feelings Hogarth was a staunch John Bull. Walpole, indeed, says, that these were two of the instances in which he stooped to low images and national satire, to please his vulgar customers.
In the same year he painted the three Pictures that decorate the Altarpiece at St. Mary's Redcliffe, at Bristol, viz. 1. "The Annunciation;" 2. "The High-priest and Servants sealing the Tomb;" 3. "The Three Marys at the Sepulchre." Speaking of these performances, in his History of that Church, Mr. Britton makes the following judicious observations: "In pictures of comic character, rich humour, and moral satire, particularly in displaying the human figure and countenance in its common and popular forms, Hogarth certainly excelled all other painters. Many of his Pictures were also executed in a masterly style of colouring, grouping, and effect. Like the generality of Artists, he was occasionally required to paint subjects from ancient and sacred history; but he then wandered out of his element, and at once betrayed a want of judgment and of taste. In the three pictures at Redcliffe Church this is exemplified. As specimens of colouring, however, they possess much merit, and may be viewed with advantage by the young Artist; but in the forms and expression, and in their attitudes and grouping, we seek in vain for propriety, dignity, or elegance."
Shortly after this period, (in 1757,) Hogarth obtained both honorary titles and substantial emolument. The former were conferred upon him by the Imperial Academy at Augsburg, which elected him a Counsellor, and an Honorary Member of their Institution; the latter he obtained from his appointment of Serjeant Painter to the King, an office from which he derived £.200 per annum. This had been originally held by his Father-in-law, Sir James Thornhill, by whom it was given up to his Son, John Thomhill, Esq. and he, at the period now mentioned, resigned it in favour of Hogarth.
Our Artist may now be considered as having produced all the more vigorous offspring of his genius; for from this period, with one or two exceptions, his Engravings consist of small and unimportant works. He published, however, in 1758, a Portrait of himself, in which he is represented painting a figure of the Comic Muse; also another Print, entitled "Character, or the Bench," containing four Portraits of Judges of the Common Pleas (see page 43), which Plate he afterwards altered, and worked upon even the day preceding his death. As one of the exceptions to the above remark must be noticed his "Cockpit," which exhibits great diversity of character in individuals actuated by the same passions. In the decrepid Old Man, who is holding a trumpet up to his ear, the Artist has shewn how strong the attachment to such disgraceful and inhuman pursuits continues, in spite of all the infirmities of age, when they appear doubly criminal and inexcusable. The figure seated on the left of the President, and looking up, is strikingly natural, and one of those which every one recognizes, without being able to identify it with any particular individual.
In 1759, the same year in which this Print made its appearance, Hogarth produced his celebrated Picture of "Sigismunda," to which performance he was, in evil hour, instigated by his ambition to enter into competition with Correggio. This was indeed a desperate and imprudent attempt, undertaken without duly considering his own talents. Hogarth, like Boccacio, could be alternately comic or serious, but he did not possess the instinctive delicacy of pathos and the simplicity of the Italian, nor could he do justice to such a subject as Count Guiscardo's Widow. This failure occasioned him much vexation, although the self-love of the Artist preponderated over public neglect and disapprobation.
From this period till 1762, when his satirical Prints of "The Medley," and "The Times" appeared, he was employed upon a few subjects of minor importance, viz. The Frontispieces to two volumes of Tristram Shandy and Brook Taylor's Perspective, "Time smoking a Picture," and the "Five Orders of Periwigs." The Print of Time was intended as a Subscription Ticket for his "Sigismunda," —likewise to ridicule the affectation of Connoisseurs for old pictures, and the artifices of Picture-dealers, and Vampers-up of undoubted originals. For the latter he always professed a strong aversion, taking not the least pains to conceal it. Speaking of his "Sigismunda," he says, "the most virulent and violent abuse thrown on it was from a set of miscreants with whom I am proud of being ever at war. I mean the expounders of the mysteries of old pictures." Against the quackery of Connoisseurship, too, he always expressed himself with particular asperity.
"The Five Orders of Periwigs" was intended, it is said, as an oblique satire upon Stuart's Athens, and the minute accuracy with which the different measurements and proportions are given in that work. This, if we may judge from a fragment preserved by Mr. John Ireland, was, in Hogarth's opinion, supreme trifling; indeed, to such a mind as his, whatever partook of that scrupulous investigation necessary to the study of Antiquities must have appeared pedantic and mechanical. Could he, however, have foreseen that the study of the Grecian Orders would have superseded the school of Burlington and Kent, he would probably rather have been eager to promote, than have attempted to ridicule it.
The first idea of "The Medley; or, Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism" was entitled "Enthusiasm Delineated;" but in this state of the copper only two impressions were taken. It was afterwards altered so completely as to be rendered altogether a different subject (see description, pages 49 and 51). Originally it was intended to ridicule the gross and palpable absurdities of the Romish Church, but was altered so as to apply to the prevailing superstitions of the day in general, and to Methodism in particular. The foolish and profane presumption of attempting to represent under a visible form that which can never be an object of the senses, and the monstrous absurdities which arise from it, are well exemplified in the grotesque Cherubim. Such hieroglyphical forms are but one degree removed from the profane Anthropomorphism of the Catholic Painters, who represent the First Person of the Trinity under the appearance of an Old Man; as if decrepitude and age were the attributes of the Deity. Speaking of this Print, Mr. Walpole says, that it is, "for deep and useful satire, the most sublime of all his works."
This year was marked by an event that contributed in no small degree to embitter the declining days of Hogarth, and even, perhaps, to abridge them. In evil hour he turned aside from subjects of universal and permanent interest, to become a political Caricaturist, and to embroil himself in all the asperities of party contention, attacking his former friends, Wilkes and Churchill. The Plate of "The Times" was published in September 1762, and immediately produced a very severe paper upon the Artist, written by Wilkes, in the 17th Number of the North Briton. Hogarth retorted by publishing a caricature Portrait of the Writer. This, however, so far from terminating the contest, served only to call an ally into the field. Churchill, eager to chastise the Painter for this personal attack upon his friend, produced his "Epistle to William Hogarth." But although this keen invective is said to have been felt by him less than the North Briton was, he was not at all disposed to let it pass with impunity; therefore, as he had before exhibited Wilkes, by merely heightening the natural obliquity of his countenance, he now exposed the Poet in the shape of a bear, affixing the following title to the Print, "The Bruiser, C. Churchill (once the Revd!) in the Character of a Russian Hercules, &c."
These contentions, which were carried on with so little credit or honour to any party, produced much irritation to Hogarth | his health visibly declined, and toward the end of 1762 he was affected with some internal disorder that brought on a general decay. He continued, however, to employ himself, and made a curious design ("The Weighing House") to illustrate a pamphlet by Mr. Clubbe, entitled "Physiognomy." During the last year of his life he re-touched many of his Plates, in which he was assisted by several Engravers; and, but a few months previous to his death, as if conscious of the approach of that event, and desirous of terminating his labours with an appropriate subject, he executed his "Finis," or an allegorical representation of the end of all things. On the 25th of October 1764 he was removed from his villa at Chiswick to his house in Leicester Square, and on the same night expired in the arms of his Wife. His remains were interred in Chiswick church-yard, where a monument is erected to his memory, with an inscription by his friend Garrick.
From what is recorded of his personal character, Hogarth appears to have been by no means remarkable for amiable manners or liberal sentiments, but to have retained, through his whole life, all the narrow prejudices arising from his want of education. He is said to have been jealous of his contemporaries; and, not content with being pre-eminent and without a rival in his own branch of the Art, was always disposed to depreciate the serious, historical, and poetical styles. On the other hand, it must be acknowledged, that he was a man of strict integrity, liberal, and hospitable ; so that, notwithstanding the affluence which he secured to himself by his works, he did not leave, with the exception of his Plates, any considerable property to his Widow. These were secured to her by his will, dated August 12, 1764, chargeable with an annuity of £.80 to his Sister Anne. His Widow survived him five and twenty years, for she did not die till November 13, 1789; after which event the Plates were sold by Mrs. Lewis to Alderman Boydell.
Few men of genius have been the subject of more numerous writings than Hogarth, nor have many been so fortunate in their Commentators. His three great Critics, Walpole, Lamb, and Lichtenberg, appear to have studied his works profoundly, but variously; each discovering in his remarks the peculiar bent of his own temper. Lord Orford is lively and shrewd, and his observations are worthy of the pen that wrote the "Reminiscences." Lamb has penetrated farther into the genius of Hogarth: he has analysed in the most masterly manner his powers of imagination and invention, and has brought to his subject a mind that completely grasped it. From him we learn, that Hogarth was a truly philosophical Artist, not a mere putter-together of figures to compose amusing pictures; for he has shewn that his works are replete with profound study and vigorous intellect, and that, for the quality of thought, they will bear a comparison with those of the greatest Masters. Lichtenberg, who, although a German, is the very antipode of a High-Dutch Commentator, looked at him completely through the medium of wit: he fully entered into his spirit, as far as relates to whimsicalness, oddity, and a keen relish for the ridiculous and the humourous—for all the combinations of graphic wit. When we read this author, we feel that it may be as truly predicated of Hogarth as of Falstaff, that he was not only witty himself, but the cause of wit in other men. It must be allowed, however, that both he and Mr. Lamb are occasionally apt to see in Hogarth more than he probably intended.
Like other Commentators, Mr. Lamb exhibits an extreme, not to say undue, partiality for his Author; yet he has characterised his productions with real feeling, and has deeply analysed that finer spirit which is less perceptible to common beholders. He has exhibited Hogarth's powers in a point of view very different from that in which he had been considered by preceding writers. According to him, Hogarth possesses even more severity than comic humour—more of the causticity of Juvenal, or of Shakspeare in his Timon and Jaques, than of the playful wit of the latter in his Falstaff. By some, however,—by the admirers of what is called the grand style of painting, or by those who regard the production of beautiful forms as the primary object of Art, rather than the intellectual value of a composition, he will be thought to estimate his favourite too highly. With great excellencies, Hogarth has at the same time his defects: it is the province, therefore, of Criticism to discriminate between the latter and the former, since Genius does not excite our approbation in consequence, but in spite, of the blemishes which accompany it. Many of Hogarth's defects belong not so much to him as to the subjects which he selected, and consequently he could not have avoided them without committing greater errors. Of this description is the preposterous and tasteless costume of that period, both in dress and furniture, which, from our not being accustomed to it in real life, gives to his figures a grotesque and antiquated air, that to some persons will render them less natural than the characters in Wilkie's pictures, since, by some, Nature and the Tailor are considered as nearly equal co-partners in the fabrication of that compound being—Man. Yet from this very circumstance, his Plates acquire a value and interest which they could not have for contemporaries, namely that of recording more perfectly and vividly than any description, however elaborate, the fashions and manners of our ancestors. It would, however, certainly be imprudent to claim for our Artist every species of merit: he had but little grace or elegance, nor was he always pre-eminently successful in picturesque effect: what he chiefly valued was, strokes of satire, character, expression, thought; and, provided he secured these, he did not scruple to sacrifice graphic elegance to moral strength, and to sentiment whether humorous or pathetic. Thus much may be safely conceded on either side; but it hardly shews much judgment to insist upon his possessing beauties at which he did not aim, or, if he did, not with any striking success.
On the merits of the "Biographical Anecdotes of Hogarth," first published in 1781, in a thin octavo volume, it would (for obvious reasons) be improper here to enlarge; but it may not be too much to say that, assisted as the Work was by the powerful talents of George Steevens, Esq. it soon passed through a third, greatly enlarged edition, and, at a distance of thirty years, was again published in two handsome quartos, to which a third volume was added in 1817, which contains like the preceding, very many interesting particulars respecting the personal history of our great Artist, and his early graphic productions.
Among the other writers upon Hogarth may be mentioned the two Irelands, whose works are rather historical and explanatory than critical: and Mr. Gilpin, who, in his "Essay on Prints," has several able remarks on their technical merits, and then value as ethical compositions With respect to the former, he observes: "The execution of this Master is well suited to his subjects, and manner of treating them. He etches with great spirit, and never gives one unnecessary stroke. For myself, I greatly more value the works of his own needle than those highly finished Prints on which he employed other Engravers. For as the production of an effect is not his talent, and as this is the chief excellence of high finishing, his own rough manner is certainly preferable; in which we have most of the force and spirit of his expression " As to Dr. Trusler’s "Hogarth Moralized," the observations it contains are too trite and common-place to be worthy the productions they profess to elucidate: indeed, the Author was much better qualified to descant on the morality of Mr. Penny's(5) pictures, than to set up for the hierophant of Hogarth's Genius. Yet little valuable as this performance is in itself, it has the merit of originality, and of giving rise, probably, to an idea that has subsequently been so much improved upon :—unless, indeed, Rouquet's descriptive work be considered as the prototype of all subsequent ones. The "Clavis Hogarthiana" is merely a piece of pleasantry, the merit of which is, that it amuses by the happy applications it produces from classical writers. The late M. Bartsch(6) in his "Anleitung zur Kupferstichkunde," speaking of Hogarth, says, "This Artist, who may in more than one respect be compared to Aristophanes, introduced genuine Comedy into Painting, and delineated the manners of his Countrymen in a true, attractive, and instructive manner, and not unfrequently with considerable pathos. One considers him as a great Satiric Author, who described the follies and vices of his age with the pencil and the burin. His great merit consists in invention, and in the expression which he gives to the passions. His efforts are constantly directed at catching the soul of his Art, in doing which he comparatively disregarded its body—mechanical skill; his productions, therefore, are more valued for their vigorous and racy conceptions, than for the excellence of their execution. It is the Satirist, not the Artist, that we admire in Hogarth."
It will, perhaps, be inquired, how far Hogarth deserves the appellation of a Moral Painter; or, whether he has not, on more than one occasion, exhibited scenes rather likely to corrupt by their profligacy, than reform by the lesson they purpose to inculcate. The latter objection attaches itself more or less to every production that exposes to reproof what is censurable in manners and conduct; and there are minds so unhappily constituted, that they are apt to fasten with a perverted appetite upon what is held up to scorn and reprehension. Of Hogarth, however, it may be safely asserted, that he has less gratuitous indecency than certain of his subjects would lead us to expect. With respect to his two Plates, "Before and After," they can hardly be said to belong to his works. These were painted at the suggestion of another; but this circumstance rather aggravates than extenuates the offence: for he who condescends to administer to the prurient and depraved taste of others, is uniformly regarded as more criminal and more contemptible than he who seeks only his own vicious indulgences. Yet, gross as is the idea of these subjects, there is in the manner of their execution but little to seduce, for they certainly partake much more of the ridiculous than of the voluptuous. With regard to indelicacies, it is not so easy to exculpate our Artist; but, as it is not purposed here to apologise for them, so neither is it intended to enumerate them: they may be regarded as belonging to the manners of the age, which were not altogether so pure, so innocent, and so unsophisticated, as the declaimers against modern times and habits would have us believe. It may, however, be observed, by way of general remark, that he is in this respect, as M. Bartsch has felicitously characterized him, the Aristophanes of Painters: if he occasionally indulges in equal licence, and in similar transgressions against decorum, he at the same time displays the same protervity of fancy, the same caprice of imagination—equal mordacity, and equal humour.
Turning from the consideration of his merits as an Ethical Painter, it is now time to examine Hogarth as a Caricaturist. A great portion of the humour of Caricature, or rather those whimsical, satirical compositions, and capricci, so denominated, consists in translating closely on the copper or canvass the metaphors of language. This is, in fact, the essence of this branch of the graphic Art, which must, therefore, be judged accordingly. These extravagances are "chartered Libertines," and are therefore not amenable to any other than their own bye-laws. "Tous les genres sont bons," says Voltaire, "hors le genre ennuyeux;" they may, therefore, be tolerated as the relaxations or the frolics of genius, for it would be as absurd to quarrel with such impossibilities, as to cavil at the talking and reasoning animals in Æsop's Fables. To this class of productions, partaking somewhat of the nature of hieroglyphic writing, may be referred, "The Just View of the British Stage;" "Royalty, Episcopacy, and Law;" "The Times," &c. In these his satire was sometimes sufficiently caustic, at others not perfectly intelligible. It has not been remarked before, but it may be supposed that the Teapot, which serves to form the head of the Lady in the second of the above-mentioned subjects, was intended to denote, that the Fair Sex of that age had more vapours (at that time the fashionable phrase for what is now understood by ennui) in their heads than brains; particularly ladies of quality, for tea was not then so common a beverage as it is now. This Print may, indeed, be termed a combination of visible puns, and graphic metaphors : we may, therefore, safely presume, that in forming his emblematic representations of Courtiers, the Artist not only designed to hint that they borrow their hue of prejudice and passion from their superiors, just as a mirror reflects the surrounding objects, but also intended a pun by exhibiting them in the form of Pier-glasses. Hogarth appears to have delighted in these enigmatical amusements, just as Swift did in conundrums and riddles, for he has given us another specimen of them in his "Large Masquerade Ticket." Yet, after all, the pleasure afforded by such ingenious obscurities terminates with the labour of decyphering them; although it must at the same time be allowed that there is some latitude in this respect, since they admit of so many various interpretations, more perhaps than the Artist himself had any idea of, each person explaining them his own way.
Independently of the principal interest and satire of his Plates, Hogarth abounds in sly, and apparently unintended traits of humour: there is such a prodigality of wit in his compositions, that they afford a varied and inexhaustible fund of interest. As instances of this bye-play—this redundancy of his spirit—may be mentioned, Crebillon's novel of the "Sopha," significantly thrown upon the piece of furniture of that name in the countess' Dressing-room in Marriage-à-la-mode—the picture of St. Luke in the 5th Plate of the same series—the Goose flying over the Member's Head, in the Chairing scene—the Halfpenny nailed up in Bedlam—the Prelate killing Time at a Masquerade—and, the Strolling Actresses, passim. Not even a piece of paper, however apparently insignificant, was suffered to be idle, but such little scraps were made to contribute some stroke of Satire or of Wit—thus, such inscriptions as "Freeman's Best," and "Kirton's Best," with many other similar instances, will be found on examination to possess a significancy that bestows on them a value and importance. Even a motto in Hogarth is replete with as much drollery and humour, as an entire page in many an author to whom, nevertheless, dulness is not to be imputed. What, for example, can be happier than that which he has selected for the "Undertakers' Arms"— "Et Plurima Mortis Imago"? Independently, too, of their own positive merits, his Prints would possess no inconsiderable value, were it only for recording so faithfully the manners and the fashions of the age to which they belong; and for preserving the likenesses of many contemporaiy characters,—that too more expressively than would have been done by mere portraits. If he sometimes exceeds the limits of propriety, it is where he introduces too many accessaries and details to be either consistent with probability, or advantageous to the general effect, the composition being thereby crowded, and frittered away. In this respect, some of his pieces require a certain degree of conventional concession on the part of the spectator, that he will overlook this species of improbability, and rather regard such subjects as generalities, and as delineations of classes of events, than as the representations of individual incidents. Examples of this occur in the "Stages of Cruelty," "Gin Lane," &c. where circumstances are crowded together in the most improbable manner.
With regard to the mechanical execution of his Engravings, it is by no means of a superior description, for Hogarth seems to have been less solicitous to captivate the eye, than to inform the mind, and to depict in a forcible and energetic manner the follies which he exposed to derision— the vices which he held forth to abhorrence. But in estimating his merits and his deficiencies in this respect, it behoves us to take into account the wretched state of the Arts at the time when he flourished, and the extraordinary progress which those of Engraving and Design have since made. There is now a certain general air of elegance displayed in the most common-place prints, and in the productions of very moderate Artists, that forms a striking contrast with those of sixty or seventy years ago. Such book-embellishments as those designed by Hogarth for Milton and Don Quixote would not now be tolerated. It is, indeed, somewhat remarkable that his subjects from Hudibras, Don Quixote, and Tristram Shandy—works which we might suppose would have been illustrated by him in the happiest manner, as productions most consonant to his own particular bent of genius, disappoint us when compared with his original compositions; they have, in short, nothing of that raciness and generous flavour which springs from immediate inspiration.—It is not so extraordinary that he should have completely failed in embodying the sublime conceptions of Milton, as that he should have attempted what was so diametrically opposite to his talent, and what must baffle the utmost powers of Painting.
Before concluding, it may not be improper briefly to advert to our Artist's predilection for alterations. In some of his Plates these are considerable, and of an important nature; for, like all men of Genius, the fertility of his mind continually created new ideas. Such discrepancies, therefore, in many instances between the early and later impressions from the same Copper, should not induce any one to suppose that the altered Engravings are spurious Copies, since the variations were made by Hogarth himself, who frequently, after a very few impressions had been taken from a Plate, effaced some parts, and substituted others. Of course the scarce impressions taken from the Plate in its first state, are highly prized by curious Collectors, not for any greater intrinsic merit they possess, but in consequence of the incidental and adventitious value conferred upon them by their rarity. That the Works of such a man as William Hogarth should have obtained universal approbation, and be held in veneration by his Countrymen, as reflecting honour on his native land, is most natural; yet, in some instances, admiration and zeal seem to have overstepped their due bounds. To affect to discern something valuable in all his minor productions is somewhat indiscreet; for, like other men of genius, he occasionally produced what would never have been worth either preserving or recording, had it not been for the association of his name; and what is to be considered as the dross, not the sterling metal of his genius. Much, however, is pardonable to that curiosity respecting an eminent individual, which induces us to examine every thing connected with him, although even certain of not meeting with any thing to increase our admiration.
Hogarth was one of those Great Men, whose works are destined to survive all the changes of taste, and all the caprices of fashion: for valuable and interesting as they would be, did they do no more than preserve a faithful picture of contemporary manners, they are to be still more highly estimated, for containing those strokes of Nature, and of genuine Wit, that are intelligible in every country, and in every age. In dignity of subject, in grandeur of composition, in the technical beauties of execution, in design, in chiaro-scuro, in exactness of imitation, in elegance, and in gracefulness, Hogarth has been excelled by several; but no Artist has ever yet produced works that rival, in expression and in character, those of the great Ethic Painter, of whom England is so justly proud: —works that will always continue to be admired in proportion to the care with which they are studied.
(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.
(5) See Mr. Lamb's Essay. If we believe Barry, this gentleman, whose works by the bye are now utterly forgotten, pursued a line of art "of a much more delicate and superior relish!"
(6) This celebrated Connoisseur, the Author of "Le Peintre Graveur," died August 21, 1821
Pour citer cette ressource :
Clifford Armion, "Biographical essay on the genius and works of Hogarth", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), septembre 2012. Consulté le 01/12/2023. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/arts/peinture/biographical-essay-on-the-genius-and-works-of-hogarth