In the mid 19th century, Hogarth could be described as the ‘celebrated painter of conversation pictures and portraits? in all of which he appears to have sought to convey a moral lesson, and to have succeeded in his attempt beyond any other artist whatsoever’.
However, the very same writer, James Hobbes (The Picture Collector’s Manual, 1849), goes on to quote Horace Walpole on Hogarth’s controversial history painting Sigismunda: ‘Not to mention the wretchedness of the colouring, it is the representation of a maudlin strumpet, just turned out of keeping, her eyes red with rage and usquebaugh [whisky]’, and to conclude that it can only ‘excite our regret that he should have attempted a branch of the art for which he was so little qualified’.
Walpole’s disdain was not untinged by snobbery, and by the end of the 19th century, Hobbes’ view of the history paintings was no longer shared by critics.
By that time, however, the view of Hogarth as the pugnacious Englishman, the artistic equivalent of Dr Johnson, was deeply ingrained. He himself had declared his work to be ‘descriptive of the peculiar manners and charac-ters of the English nation’, but, given his portrayals of many of them, this is not necessarily a compliment to his countrymen.
Everyone knows of Hogarth’s arrest as a spy at Calais and his revengeful satire on the French, O the Roast Beef of Old England (Calais Gate), but not all will be aware that this was not an abortive Continental venture, but the return journey from Paris, which he visited on at least one other occasion.
There, he is likely to have seen the work of that other great middle-class painter Chardin, as well as the delicate Rococo compositions of Watteau and Boucher. These would have reinforced the international influences imbibed during his upbringing in the strikingly cosmopolitan early-18th-century London art world.
The magnificent show at Tate Britain has already been seen in part at the Louvre the first Hogarth exhibition ever in France where it proved immensely popular. There, the artist was presented as a leading figure of the Enlightenment, one who continued the intellectual work of Newton and the Royal Society.
In London, there is a different emphasis, equally as valid and interesting: here, Hogarth’s concept of ‘variety’ is placed at the core, just as he would have wished. Walpole may have dismissed Hogarth’s treatise The Analysis of Beauty as pretentious, but it is highly original, with its promotion of the sinuous ‘line of grace and beauty’ and the contention that ‘composed variety’ is a vital component of beauty.
The remarkable versatility of his own art is given due weight. In 1730, Joseph Mitchell wrote of him:
Painting alone is not your Praise
You know the World, and
all its Ways.
Life, high and low, alike command,
And shew, each work,
With this show, history and literary painting are no longer overlooked. Hogarth was a master satirist whose polemics and moral diatribes do not lessen the sheer brilliance of his painting; he was also an admirable draughtsman, a formidable businessman and campaigner, and an unrivalled portrait painter. As Ellis Waterhouse noted, Captain Coram is a landmark
‘a portrait of a middle class philanthropist, with all the weight and none of the pretentiousness of a state portrait’.
The huge popularity of the engravings, internationally and over the centuries, has perhaps overshadowed the original paintings for the famous series ‘Moralities’. The Rake’s Progress, Marriage A-la-Mode, Industry and Idleness: they are almost all here, and it is fascinating to compare paintings and prints.
The pattern set in Hogarth’s lifetime has continued. He was immensely popular with the public (although the engravings did not cater for a true mass market even his 6d prints were beyond the reach of the majority), and admired by fellow artists, at the same time as being often at war with the connoisseurs and critics. The early sections of the show both set Hogarth’s career in context and indicate its continuing influence on painters from Greuze and Goya to Hockney and Yinka Shonibare, whose series of huge photographic prints, ‘Diary of a Victorian Dandy’, serves as an introduction.
The exhibition is curated by Christine Riding, curator of 18th- and 19th-century British Art at the Tate, and Mark Hallett, Professor of the History of Art at York. They have produced a quite admirable catalogue, which includes an essay on Hogarth and Modernity by Frédéric Ogée and Olivier Meslay of the Louvre, together with the curators’ own meditations on the themes of Hogarth’s art. In their descriptions of the paintings and prints, where every detail has its importance, they lead us through the iconography with a lightness of touch and lucidity that adds greatly to the pleasure of looking.
The London leg of the show is the most comprehensive Hogarth exhibition anywhere for more than 30 years.
‘Hogarth’ is at Tate Britain until April 29 (after which parts of it travel on to Barcelona)