His father was a schoolteacher plus literary hack, who apprenticed him in early youth to an engraver of arms. From this he passed to engraving on copper, and from this to making illustrations for books. In 1726 he prepared twelve large engravings for Butler’sHudibras. He joined Thornhill’s art class, learned oil painting, and eloped with the master’s daughter; Thornhill forgave him and engaged him as aide.
The illustrations that Hogarth made for The Tempest, 2 Henry IV, and The Beggar’s Opera were vivid images: Miranda tender, Caliban coarse, Prospero kindly, Ariel strumming a lute in the air; Sir John Falstaff pontificating from his paunch; Captain Macheath in his irons and arias, still a hero to his wives. The coming satirist struck his distinctive vein in The Sleeping Congregation, for Hogarth hated all homilies except his own; while in A Children’s Party he relished the fairest phase of English life. These pictures please us now, but drew no plaudits then.
He tried his hand at portrait painting, to indifferent results. The competition was severe. A dozen artists were making minor fortunes by flattering their sitters and dividing their tasks; they painted the head but delegated backgrounds and draperies to underpaid subordinates; “all this,” said Hogarth, “is done at so easy a rate as enables the principal to get more money in a week than a man of the first professional talents can in three months.”7 He denounced the “phiz-mongers” who prettified the faces of their clients to feed their vanity and open their purses. As for himself he would portray his sitters with all their carbuncles, or not at all. When a distinctively simian noble sat for his picture Hogarth painted him with offensive honesty. The lord, never having seen himself as others saw him, refused to take the portrait. The artist sent him a message:
Mr. Hogarth’s dutiful respects to Lord ———. Finding that he does not mean to have the picture which was drawn for him, is informed again of Mr. Hogarth’s need for the money. If, therefore, his Lordship does not send for it in three days, it will be disposed of, with the addition of a tail and some other little appendages, to Mr. Hare, the famous wild-beast man; Mr. Hogarth having given that gentleman a conditional promise of it for an exhibition picture …8
His Lordship paid.
Hogarth was confident that he could paint portraits as well as any man. When he was portraying Henry Fox (later Baron Holland) he told Horace Walpole that he had promised Fox, if he would sit as instructed, that he, Hogarth, would make as good a portrait of him as Rubens or Vandyck could have done;9 which shocked Horace to the very core of his conventions. Many of Hogarth’s male portraits may justify the distaste that Walpole expressed for them; the faces are too stereotyped, and some deserve his own scornful labeling of certain English portraits as “still life.” We must except Sir Thomas Coram, already noted in commemorating the Foundling Hospital, which Coram founded and where he hangs; Hogarth caught the philanthropic nature in the smiling face, and the firm character in the closed hands. Generally the artist’s brush was kinder to women than to men. The Portrait of a Lady10 rivals Gainsborough; A Lady in Brown11 has the strong features of a woman who has successfully mothered many children; and if Miss Mary Edwards12 is slightly dead, it is brought to life by the—in Hogarth always present—dog. Finer are the group portraits, like The Price Family13 and The Graham Children;14 and better still Hogarth’s Servants,15 where every face is fondly limned in all its unduplicable character. Finest of all, of course, is The Shrimp Girl16—not a portrait but a hale man’s memory of the young woman he had seen peddling shrimp from a basket balanced on her head; a girl free from all frills, not ashamed of the rags that robe her, looking out upon the world with the health of action ruddying her cheeks and brightening her eyes.
Hogarth left at least four portraits of himself. In 1745 he painted himself with his fat dog Trump.17 In 1758 he showed himself at his easel: short, stout body, round and pudgy face, broad pug nose, blue eyes tired with fighting, lips tight with readiness to fight again. He was “a jovial, honest London citizen,” in Thackeray’s view, “a hearty, plain-spoken man, loving his laugh, his friends, his glass, his roast-beef of Old England.”18 He was hardly five feet tall, but he wore a sword19 and took no nonsense from any man. Behind his defensive pugnacity was a warm heart, sometimes sentimental, forever pledged to war against hypocrisy and cruelty. He despised the lords whom he painted, he liked the simple Londoner who put on no airs. He brought the English masses into art; he pictured them in their sins and sufferings, in Bedlam, prison, debt, and heavy toil. He disliked the French as having corrupted England with finicky finery and aristocratic airs. He never forgot his being arrested for making sketches of Calais Gate; he took revenge by picturing the French as he had seen them there: rugged workmen, superstitious populace, and fat monk gazing in ecstasy upon a shoulder of beef.20
In his Anecdotes Hogarth told how the unprofitableness of his portraits turned him into the line that made his fame:
I was unwilling to sink into a portrait manufacturer; and still ambitious of being singular [working independently], dropped all expectations of advantage from that source … As I could not bring myself to act like some of my brethren, and make it a sort of manufactory to be carried on by the help of background and drapery painters, it was not sufficiently profitable to pay the expenses my family required. I therefore turned my thoughts to painting and engraving modern moral subjects, a field not broken up in any country or any age.21
So in 1731 he painted six pictures which he called A Harlot’s Progress; he engraved them on copper; from these engravings he made a series of prints which a year later were offered for sale. The girl arriving from the country is introduced to an itching gentleman by a persuasive procuress; the lass is a ready learner, and soon reaches an insolent prosperity. She is arrested not for prostitution but for theft; she does her stint in jail, beating hemp; she progresses quickly to disease and death, but she has the consolation of having a bevy of courtesans follow her funeral. Hogarth could easily have taken his characters from life; we have seen Mrs. Needham exposed in the pillory for prostitution, pelted by the populace, and dying of her injuries. (However, Colonel Charteris, twice accused of rape and twice condemned to death, was twice pardoned by the King, and died in state at his country seat.)22 Hogarth was mistaken in thinking that he broke new ground in these genre prints; there had been many such in Renaissance Italy, in France, in the Netherlands, in Germany. But Hogarth now made an art and philosophy of “moral subjects.” Like most moralists he was not himself immaculate; he had borne without horror the company of drunkards and prostitutes,23 and his prints were designed first to make money and then, if possible, saints.
The Harlot prints sold well, appealing to twelve hundred subscribers and netting over a thousand pounds. Though pirated editions clipped the artist’s coin, they drove the wolf from the door. The British public, which had no passion for paintings, took readily to these scenes of sin. Here was forbidden fruit, sterilized by morality but delightful none the less; here for a pittance one could make safe acquaintance with vice, and watch with satisfaction its proper punishment. With his earnings Hogarth could now feed his family; indeed, he took a home in fashionable Leicester Fields, and hung outside his door a golden head, indicating his profession as an artist. Later he bought a country house at Chiswick.
He painted some large pictures in the next few years, chiefly Southwark Fair—an English Brueghel—and a pretty group portrait, The Edwards Family. But in 1733 he returned to prints, and paralleled his Harlot with a series entitled A Rake’s Progress. A giddy-pated youth suddenly inherits a rich estate; he abandons Oxford for London, enjoys taverns and wenches, squanders his money, is hauled off for debts, is rescued by his castoff mistress, recovers solvency by marrying an elderly lady with one eye but much money; he gambles away his new fortune at White’s, is jailed again, and ends his career insane in “Bedlam” Hospital. It was a morality play in pictures easily understood and graphically presenting a segment of life. To guard the Rake prints from piracy, Hogarth campaigned for the legal protection of his rights. In 1735 Parliament passed “An Act for the Encouragement of the Arts of Designing, Engraving, Etching, etc.”; this law, popularly known as “Hogarth’s Act,” gave him an equivalent of copyright on his prints. In 1745 he auctioned off the paintings from which he had engraved the Harlot and the Rake, and took in £427.
Solvent and confident, he made another foray into painting. “I entertained some hopes of succeeding in what the puffers in books call ’the great style of History painting.’”24 In the decade from 1735 to 1745 he produced some excellent pictures which had to wait a century for appreciation. The Distressed Poet25 is the old story of the impoverished author dunned for his rent while his wife knits fitfully and their cat sleeps in unconcerned content. The Pool of Bethesda attempted a Biblical scene, but Hogarth spiced it with a half-nude beauty full in the face of Christ. The artist was not immune to feminine flesh, and in the engraving Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn he gave it the added lure of clothing half removed. The Good Samaritan26 comes close to the level of the “Old Masters.” More appealing is a large painting, David Garrick as Richard III;27 this was commissioned by a Mr. Duncombe, who paid for it two hundred pounds, the highest fee yet given to an English painter.
Nevertheless these works did not earn critical acclaim. Hogarth turned back (1745) to the satire of London life in engravings where the burin pointed a moral with a tale. In the first scene of Marriage à la Mode a bankrupt gouty earl contracts to marry his title and unwilling son to the unwilling daughter of an opulent alderman. The Earl displays the family pedigree as a tree on a scroll; the lawyer sprinkles blotting powder on the signatures; the bridegroom turns away from the bride, who lends an ear to her paramour; and two dogs monopolize the domestic peace. In the next scene the married couple are already at odds: the young lord has returned exhausted from an all-night adventure whose nature is signaled by a girl’s lace cap protruding from his pocket; the young wife yawns after spending the night entertaining company with music, gambling, and small talk; again only the dog is happy. The third scene is Hogarth at his boldest: the lordly scoundrel brings his mistress to a quack doctor for an abortion. Scene four shows the wife having her hair dressed at her levee, or morning reception; her lover is with her, and she ignores the music played or sung by her guests, who include a deviate with curling papers in his hair. In the fifth scene her husband has caught her with her lover; the two men draw their swords; the husband is mortally wounded; the lover flees through the window; the wife is overcome with remorse; a constable appears at the door. In the final scene the young widow is dying; her father, removing a costly ring from her finger, salvages the last remnant of the fortune that he had paid for her title.
In 1751 Hogarth announced that he would sell at auction, at a given hour in his studio, the oil paintings that he had made for Marriage à la Mode; but he warned picture dealers to stay away. Only one person appeared, who bid £126 for the pictures and their frames. Hogarth let them go at this price, but privately raged at what he rated a shameful failure. In 1797 these paintings brought £1,381; today they are among the most highly prized possessions of London’s National Gallery.
Meanwhile he had earned the ire of the King with The March of the Guards toward Scotland (1745). This was the year of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s attempt to overthrow the Hanoverians. Hogarth pictured the Royal Guards assembling at Finchley, a suburb of London. A fifer and a drummer summon them; the soldiers accept their fate with the help of intoxication; they are a sorry-looking lot, fitter for a tavern carouse than for a rendezvous with heroic death. The artist had the painting shown to George II with request for permission to dedicate it to him. The King refused. “What?” he exclaimed. “A painter burlesque a soldier? He deserves to be picketed [imprisoned] for his insolence. Take his trumpery out of my sight!” Hogarth, says an uncertain story, dedicated the picture to Frederick the Great as “an encourager of arts and sciences.”28
He resumed his satirical prints. In twelve plates entitled Industry and Idleness (1747) he traced the careers of two apprentices. Frank Goodchild works hard, reads good books, goes to church every Sunday, marries his master’s daughter, gives alms to the poor, becomes sheriff, alderman, lord mayor of London. Tom Idle snores over his loom, reads wicked books like Moll Flanders, drinks, gambles, picks pockets, is brought before Alderman Goodchild, who, weeping with mercy, condemns him to be hanged. Two engravings, Gin Lane and Beer Street (1751), contrasted the “dreadful consequences of gin-drinking” with the wholesome effects of beer. The Four Stages of Cruelty (1751) aimed, said the artist, “to correct that barbarous treatment of animals, the very sight of which renders the streets of our metropolis so distressing to every feeling mind. I am more proud of having been the author [of these prints] than I should be of having painted Raphael’s Cartoons.”29 He aimed at fancier evils in Four Prints of an Election (1755–58), which attacked the corruption of English politics.
Taken merely as drawings, Hogarth’s prints are crude in conception and execution, hasty and sketchy in detail. But he thought of himself as an author or playwright rather than an artist; he resembled his friend Fielding more than his favorite enemy, William Kent; he was presenting a picture of the age rather than displaying the techniques of art. “I have endeavored to treat my subject 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.”30 As satires the prints are deliberate exaggerations; they stress an aspect and etch a point. They are more crowded with detail than a work of art should be; but every detail, except the inevitable dog, contributes to the theme. Taken all together, the prints allow us to see lower-middle-class London of the eighteenth century: the homes, taverns, Mall, Covent Garden, London Bridge, Cheapside, Bridewell, Bedlam, and the Fleet. It is not all of London, but what is there is shown with extraordinary vividness.
The art critics, collectors, and dealers of the time acknowledged neither Hogarth’s ability as an artist nor his truth as a satirist. They charged him with picturing only the dregs of English life. They taunted him with having turned to popular prints through inability to paint successful portraits or historical scenes; and they condemned his drawing as careless and inaccurate. He retorted by denouncing the dealers as conspiring to praise their stock of Old Masters, while letting live artists starve:
Unsanctioned by their authority and unascertained [not guaranteed] by tradition, the best preserved and highest finished picture … will not, at a public auction, produce five shillings; while a despicable, damaged, and repaired old canvas, sanctioned by their praise, shall be purchased at any price, and find a place in the noblest collections. All this is very well understood by the dealers.31
He refused to submit his judgment to such dealers or connoisseurs. He inveighed against the enslavement of English painters to the imitation of Vandyck or Lely or Kneller; even the giants of Italian art were nicknamed “Black Masters” by him, as having cast a pall upon English painting by the black magic of their brown sauce. When a picture attributed to Correggio brought four hundred pounds at a London sale, he questioned the attribution and the value, and offered to paint as good a picture any time he liked. Challenged, he produced Sigismunda (1759)32—a good imitation of Correggio, with lace and finery and delicate hands and lovely face; but the eyes were too melancholy to please the prospective purchaser, who refused to pay the four hundred pounds that Hogarth asked for it. It was sold after his death for fifty-six pounds.
He gave another handle to his enemies by writing a book. On the palette in his portrait of himself and his dog (1745) he had traced a serpentine line which seemed to him to be the basic element of beautiful form. In a pedagogical treatise, Analysis of Beauty(1753), he defined this line as that formed by winding a wire in even progression around a cone. Such a line, he thought, was not only the secret of grace but also the movement of life. All this, to Hogarth’s critics, seemed to be vapid moonshine.
Despite them he prospered. His prints were in almost every literate home, and their continuing sale gave him a steady income. In 1757, his March of the Guards having been forgotten, he was appointed “Serjeant Painter of all his Majesty’s Works,” which brought him an additional two hundred pounds a year. He could now afford new enemies. In 1762 he issued a print, The Times, which attacked Pitt, Wilkes, and others as warmongers. Wilkes replied in his journal, The North Briton, describing Hogarth as a vain and avaricious old man incapable of a “single idea of beauty.” Hogarth retaliated by publishing a portrait of Wilkes as a squint-eyed monster. Wilkes’s friend Churchill answered with a savage “Epistle to William Hogarth”; Hogarth issued a print showing Churchill as a bear. “The pleasure and pecuniary advantage which I derived from these two engravings,” he wrote, “together with occasional riding on horseback, restored me to as much health as can be expected at my time of life.”33 But on October 26, 1764, he burst an artery and died.
He left no visible mark on the art of his time. In 1734 he opened a “life school” to train artists; it was merged in 1768 with the Royal Academy of Arts. Even the artists educated in his studio abandoned his realism for the fashionable idealism of Reynolds and Gainsborough. His influence was felt, however, in the field of caricature; there his humor and force passed down through Thomas Rowlandson to Isaac and George Cruikshank, and caricature became an art. Hogarth’s present high repute as a painter began with Whistler’s remark that Hogarth was “the only great English painter”;34 Whistler carefully excluded himself from the comparison. A less cautious judge ranked Hogarth, “taking him at his best,” as “the supreme figure in eighteenth-century painting.”35 This estimate represents the current depreciation of Reynolds as a money-making beautifier of aristocrats. It is a mood that will pass. It is hard to rank Hogarth as an artist, because he was not only that; he was the voice of England angry at its own squalor and degradation; he rightly considered himself a social force. Fielding so understood him: “I almost dare affirm that those two works of his, which he calls The Rake’s and Harlot’s Progress, are calculated more to serve the cause of virtue … than all the folios of morality which have ever been written.”36 One thing is certain: he was the most English English artist that ever lived.