• Email
  • Print

An Exchange on Hogarth

In response to:

The Genius of Gin Lane from the May 27, 1993 issue

To the Editors:

Since the hostility of Richard Dorment’s review of my Hogarth [NYR, May 27] is addressed ad hominem (to an American, “a professor of English at Johns Hopkins,” a “pseudo scholar,” who has done “hard work…in American libraries,” and has “dominated” “the field of Hogarth scholarship…for more than thirty years”), I am inclined to ask who is the reviewer and for whom does he speak? He passes himself off as an Englishman, whose privileged vantage point is “the streets of London,” someone like the Hogarth he envisions (“a simpler and more accessible artist”), the xenophobe who bluntly asserted that France was “all gilt and beshitten.” In fact, Dorment is an American expatriate, a Columbia Ph.D., and author of a copiously pedantic catalog of the English paintings in the Philadelphia Museum. It is ironic then that he lays out the difference between our positions in the terms of xenophobia and know-nothing British dilettantism of the sort associated with Apollo and some London dailies. It would have been better presented in terms of the historiography of art. In that context Dorment speaks for the generation of Ralph Edwards and Ellis Waterhouse, whose position was represented at its most distinguished in E. H. Gombrich’s attack on Leo Steinberg’s “overreading” of Michelangelo in this same journal in 1977.

When Dorment refers to statements in my book “which are simply not true” he means phrases that can be misread by a reader of the sort he defines. True, Hogarth was not born in “the north country” (as William Kent was) but he was (in my words) “from the north country”: his family roots were there and his father physically migrated south to London. The March to Finchley was “painted with the Foundling Hospital in mind” in the sense that between 1740 and 1750 Hogarth painted and engraved works that reflected his interest in the Founding children, a sequence into which Finchley fits. That he gave the Foundling 157 of the 2,000 lottery tickets shows that he at least hoped it would hang there. None of this context is mentioned by Dorment.

My own sense of what is “simply not true” would include Dorment’s dating the earliest Beggar’s Opera painting 1729 instead of 1728, placing George Frederick Handel in Marriage A-la mode 4 instead of Rake 2, and confusing the engraved Analysis of Beauty 2 with the painted Country Dance, and George Prince of Wales, later George III, with his father, Frederick Prince of Wales.

It would be possible to answer each of Dorment’s specific quibbles (my original, more expansive letter to the NYR did so). But Dorment’s main animus is directed to the assumption that a certain part of Hogarth’s “meaning [could] be understood only by the enlightened few” as opposed to “everyone.” He ignores my arguments (and the evidence of contemporaries) that Hogarth’s genius was precisely for reaching both audiences; and that his “modern moral subject” was an attempt to create a viable “history painting,” that most learned of painterly genres. Dorment is also handicapped by his total inability to understand Hogarth’s use of irony.

Most egregious, Dorment asks his reader to believe that the new material in Hogarth is only “further thoughts on those already published” in the 1971 work. For anyone who has read the book this statement is ludicrous, but Dorment shows no awareness of any of the following new propositions, the equivalent for him, I should have thought, of red flags waved in the face of a bull: Hogarth’s address to a double audience must be understood in its historical contexts—the ironic discourse of Opposition politics of the 1730s, the exoteric and esoteric discourses of the Deists, and the lesser and greater mysteries of the Freemasons (as well as the old Renaissance concept of allegory’s address to both a “general reader” and a reader “of greater penetration”). Hogarth was a critical Deist, and his active participation in Freemasonry served as an outlet for his skepticism as well as his social aspirations. Each of his religious history paintings reflects (like his “modern moral subjects”) Deist demystifications of New Testament miracles. Samuel Richardson’s foundational novel Pamela is a rewriting of the Harlot’s Progress. The “popular” prints of 1747–1751 speak directly to a subculture audience, but this more intense response was also enjoyed at a distance by the reader “of greater penetration,” much as were the ballads by the readers of Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. The Analysis of Beauty presents an aesthetics that is both anti-academic and (in the philosophical sense) sensationalist—indeed the Virgin-Harlot who so disturbs Dorment is the center of this aesthetics, which draws upon, among other works, John Cleland’s aestheticizing of the Harlot in Fanny Hill. The advent of Burke’s Sublime four years later led Hogarth to develop a scenario in which the Sublime (in both art and Pittite politics) tries to destroy his Beautiful. The Sign Painters’ Exhibition of 1762 sums up Hogarth’s vision of anti-academic art. In these ways he created and perpetuated a counter discourse to the Shaftesburyian “civic humanism” or academicism, of which so much has been made of late by art historians. In short, my new book presents a history of British art during the first sixty-four years of the century which will not be found in the 1971 version or in art history textbooks. I phrase these assertions in a deliberately provocative way in order to indicate the size of Dorment’s omission. Either he did not read the book or is without the knowledge and expertise in the eighteenth century to contest these issues.

It is worth noting that in the two parts of his review that sandwich the attack on my book Dorment blandly draws every fact and insight from that same book—though admittedly he says nothing that is not in the 1971 version, and he extracts selectively, garnering evidence for his “simple and accessible” patriotic Englishman. He cites Hogarth’s lack of formal schooling while ignoring the fact that for his first seventeen years Hogarth lived with, and was obviously instructed by, a scholarly academic. The dilettante Horace Walpole, whom Dorment cites as his contemporary witness (“Hogarth is not a difficult artist”), regarded Hogarth as condescendingly as does Dorment. In fact Hogarth’s works ask to be experienced alongside literary works such as the novel (ostensibly “for everyone”): Fielding’s and Sterne’s carried at least as much irony and learning, and their common aim was to dignify this “novel” form by connecting it, as Hogarth did in his modern history painting, with Shakespeare, Milton, and the great traditions of English and classical literature.

I can only ask the reader to decide: Is Hogarth’s vision of “England” so optimistic, so lighthearted as Dorment would like to think? Is Hogarth in fact Dorment’s simplistic jackbooted jingoist? Is he so nationalistic as to be incapable of satire? The sheer visual complexity of his prints belies this interpretation. What Dorment’s review demonstrates is a sort of wishful little Englandism that eschews thought and effort and is out of touch with the art historical, let alone the literary and historical, scholarship of the last two generations.

Ronald Paulson

Department of English

The Johns Hopkins University

Baltimore, Maryland

Richard Dorment replies:

It gave me no pleasure to give Professor Paulson’s book such a negative review. But the explanation for my criticism does not lie in the difference he constructs between American scholarship and British, or between American scholarship and British, or between the new art history and that of an older generation. He is right to note my respect for E. H. Gombrich and Ellis Waterhouse but he ignores, for example, my references to John Barrell’s work in the museum catalog he mentions.

Professor Paulson seems unaware, moreover, that I have written enthusiastically in these pages and in the TLS of the work of such younger scholars as Anne Wagner, Richard Thomson, and Peter Galassi, and that I did so because they used convincing visual or written evidence to support new and imaginative readings of the art, respectively, of Carpeaux, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Corot. This is what I felt Professor Paulson failed to do in his work on Hogarth.

When I described Paulson’s book as “further thoughts” on material already published, I was thinking not only of the 1971 edition, but of his Emblem and Expression: Meaning in English Art of the Eighteenth Century (1975) and his Popular and Polite Art in the Age of Hogarth and Fielding (1979). To take just one example, both books contain substantial chapters devoted to the series “Industry and Idleness” on which Paulson elaborates in the revised version. Far from saying that there was nothing new in that version, what I said was that there were “hundreds of pages of new material” added to that already published.

Since his book is over 2,000 pages long, were I to have attempted to cover even half of the subjects he lists in his letter my review would have been almost as prolix as his text. Instead I took the series with which he dealt at greatest length, the “Harlot’s Progress,” and analyzed his treatment of one character, the Harlot.

Nobody doubts that these prints were enjoyed both by a sophisticated audience and a naive one, or that the educated and uneducated read the prints at different levels—the one noticing the parody of the Visitation in the first plate, for example, the other not. But as I wrote, Paulson has not produced the name of a single contemporary or near contemporary of Hogarth’s who shares his view that the Harlot was Hercules, Diana, Isis, Mary Magdalene, or Venus (or a parody of them)—or that the Rake in the “Rake’s Progress” was David, Paris, Nero, or the anti-Christ. Did Hogarth so much as hint at such a reading in his “Autobiographical Notes”? The burden of the proof is on the author, not the reader of his book.

Paulson waves the question aside with a reference to unnamed “men of greater penetration.” In doing so, he frees himself of the need for evidence to prove his thesis, and he can then say virtually anything that floats into his head about the Harlot’s changing identities (or any other subject). Thus Paulson himself admits that the sole evidence that the iconography of the “March to Finchley” reflects Hogarth’s hope that the picture should hang in the Foundling Hospital is its date: he painted it in the 1740s when he was thinking a lot about orphans.

Even in matters of fundamental importance to his thesis, Paulson often depends on conjecture. In his letter he states categorically that Hogarth was a “critical Deist.” One immediately asks what a “critical” Deist is. Is it like a half-hearted Methodist, or a lukewarm Anglican? Or is it a phrase invented by Paulson to mask the fact that he, like the rest of us, doesn’t know very much about Hogarth’s religion? Indeed if one turns to the book itself one finds he is much more tentative, stating only that “My suspicion is that Hogarth was drawn to the Deists” (Volume I, p. 299). In Volume Il, p. 60, he says vaguely that “Hogarth can best be called a Deist”—which seems to me an altogether more dubious basis for his extreme interpretation of these images as evidence of Deist ridicule of Christian myths.

As for Freemasonry, Hogarth’s active involvement between about 1725 and 1735 is reflected in those early spoofs on the Masons noted by Horace Walpole. But Paulson himself writes that there are no overtly Masonic references in Hogarth’s work after 1738 and there is no mention of him in the minute books of the Grand Lodge after 1735. There may of course be allusions to Freemasonry in a series as rich in social satire as the “Harlot’s Progress,” but I wonder whether Hogarth’s apparently tentative—and certainly ambivalent—commitment to Freemasonry justifies the mind-boggling level of secret symbolism Paulson finds in virtually every detail of every print.

But let’s skip the Deists and Freemasons and look at the symbolic allusions Paulson finds in a work other than the “Harlot’s Progress.” Then we can better judge whether my impatience with Paulson’s method is justified. One can open the book almost at random and come up with rich pickings, but let us choose a short passage relating to a tiny detail in a minor print, “The Battle of the Pictures,” Hogarth’s subscription ticket to the auction of his paintings in 1745 (Volume II, fig. 99).

Here Hogarth depicts a dozen or so old master paintings (or copies of them) including a “St. Francis in Ecstasy,” a “Feast of the Gods,” and a “Penitent Magdalene.” Among these pictures Paulson singles out for discussion “Europa and the Bull.”

Does [Europa] represent the Continental tradition of art, the Old Masters, being carried away by Hogarth, who is “raping” the ancients…. Is the bull a larger version of the aggressive pug [i.e. Hogarth’s pet dog], who stood for Hogarth in his early conversation pictures and his self-portrait of circa 1745? Or is Hogarth perhaps pairing himself and his wife Jane…? If Europa is Jane, then the bull is once again the impatient William carrying her away from her father…. [He was] a probably overbearing father-in-law, indeed Father [Volume II, pp. 233–234].

My marginal note on this passage reads: “Is it not possible that Hogarth chose ‘Europa and the Bull’ simply because the subject was so often depicted in the Italian 17th century paintings of the sort he despised?”

In any case, Paulson fails to tell us how he knows Hogarth’s father-in-law was overbearing, or what evidence there is that “Europa and the Bull” symbolizes Hogarth carrying his wife away from him. In fact, it is hard to see what evidence Paulson has for anything he writes in this paragraph. When I closed the third volume of his book I found I simply did not believe in his picture of Hogarth as a scholar-artist. This was not because I had closed my mind to even the most extreme new interpretations of Hogarth’s art, but because I felt the book told me far more about Professor Paulson’s cast of mind than about Hogarth’s. The difference between us is that what he calls research I call free-association. This is not a “quibble.”

  • Email
  • Print