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Reading Hogarth

In response to:

An Exchange on Hogarth from the August 12, 1993 issue

To the Editors:

In his reply to my letter [Letters, NYR, August 12] Richard Dorment continues to demand the name of some contemporary who said, e.g., “Hogarth parodied a Choice of Hercules in Harlot 1.” He continues to be obsessed by my “speculation” “that the Harlot was Hercules, Diana, Isis, Mary Magdalene, or Venus,” and he is worried about the meaning of “critical Deist.” Let me try to put these matters together for him as they would have appeared to an informed contemporary of Hogarth’s.

Of several contexts in which I situate the Harlot-Mary-Hercules parody (all unmentioned by Dorment) one is the satiric (“critical”) deflation of the New Testament miracles by the Deist Thomas Woolston in his Discourses on the Miracles of Our Saviour (1727 ff.) and another is the third Earl of Shaftesbury’s influential Tablature of the Judgment of Hercules (1713). Woolston’s portrait is on the wall in some versions of Plate 2; the Choice of Hercules can be inferred from the internal evidence of the three figures at the center of Plate 1. From this group and the visual-verbal references to the Harlot’s Progress as a new art form in the subscription ticket (Boys Peeping at Nature), I “speculate” that Hogarth’s first “modern moral subject” (his words) takes off from Shaftesbury’s dictum that history painters should model their histories on the classical Choice of Hercules (Heroic Virtue choosing Virtue over Pleasure). Hogarth, always a reactive personality, especially against any theory he regarded as academic, substitutes a harlot—a protagonist neither heroic nor male—for Hercules. Shaftesbury had ruled out the female as a subject for the history painter except when presented as a threat to be avoided (Pleasure). This woman becomes the center of anti-Shaftesbury statements about art in Hogarth’s works from the 1730s onward into the aesthetic theory of The Analysis of Beauty (1753), where she is Venus herself. (As to Diana of the Ephesians or Isis: She is not dragged into the story of the Harlot, as Dorment claims, but rather appears in the subscription ticket, as the many-breasted goddess who draws further attention to the function of Hogarth’s anti-Venus.)

Hogarth the “critical Deist” substitutes for Shaftesbury’s classical a Christian gestalt, and not the Life of Christ but of the Virgin (the parody of a Visitation); but then replaces the New Testament figures with recognizable living Londoners (Kate Hack-about, Francis Charteris, Elizabeth Needham). For critical Deists, once the classical myth was compromised by juxtaposition with the Christian, the Christian itself could be submitted to reason, which meant, in the terms of Deist ridicule, revealing the historical reality beneath the myth. For Hogarth this meant carrying skepticism to the edge of blasphemy and probably explains why he removed the portrait of Woolston in the subscription edition of the Harlot.

It would be tedious to fill in the contexts of each of the phrases or passages Dorment takes out of context. Each is a case not of “speculation” (except in so far as any inference from data, internal as well as external, is speculation) but of Dorment’s failure to contextualize. (He is evidently a reviewer who dips into rather than reads a text.) The speculation on the relationship of Hogarth, his wife, and his father-in-law to the “Rape of Europa” painting (in The Battle of the Pictures) is actually one of a series of discussions of that particular relationship, based on details of the couple’s elopement, Sir James Thornhill’s outrage, their apparent reconciliation, and the series of literary texts Hogarth chose to illustrate which focus on this for him important trio: Shakespeare’s Ferdinand, Miranda, and Prospero; Milton’s Satan, Sin, and Death; Boccaccio’s Guiscardo, Sigismunda, and Tancred. In that context I think the speculation on the function of the bull and Europa (and the implied third; her father King Agenor) was justified. This is, after all, a very personal print which includes a view of Hogarth’s own living room.

Yes, I would have expected Dorment to write in the margin his comment that “Europa and the Bull” was simply chosen because “the subject was so often depicted in the Italian seventeenth century paintings of the sort [Hogarth] despised.” That, of course, is a beginning.

Ronald Paulson
Department of English
The Johns Hopkins University
Baltimore, Maryland

Richard Dorment replies:

Twice now I have asked Professor Paulson for the name of a contemporary or a near-contemporary, one of those men “of greater penetration” who recognized the fantastic succession of identities he proposes for Moll Hackabout, the Harlot in the Harlot’s Progress. I focus on this one series in order to make my criticisms of Paulson’s complex theories about Hogarth intelligible to readers who are not specialists in eighteenth-century British art. It is, moreover, a crucial question. In the absence of visual evidence in the works themselves, the reader needs some voice other than Paulson’s to convince us that his speculations as to Hogarth’s intentions in this series and others are not simply the product of the author’s imagination. I could hardly have asked for a more apt demonstration of everything I objected to in his method than Paulson’s present letter. As evidence that the Harlot is Hercules in a parody of the “Choice of Hercules” in plate one, he produces the single fact that there are three central figures in the scene, the Harlot, a procuress, and a clergyman. This he characterizes as “internal evidence.”

But in a traditional representation of the subject Hogarth is supposed to be parodying, Hercules chooses between the personifications of virtue and of pleasure. Hogarth’s Harlot is not being offered a choice at all. She simply listens to the blandishments of the procuress, while in the background the preoccupied clergyman ignores her. Precisely because Hogarth’s place-seeking padre neglects his duty to the vulnerable country girl, she is seduced into the life of a prostitute. Since she is not actually looking at the clergyman, who in any case can hardly be said to represent virtue, plate one seems to me to have nothing whatsoever to do with the Choice of Hercules, let alone with Lord Shaftesbury’s Tablature of the Judgement of Hercules.

I asked for evidence that the “Harlot’s Progress” is saturated in Deist ridicule of Christian myth. In reply, Paulson cites a portrait on the wall of the Harlot’s boudoir in some versions of plate two which has been identified by several early commentators as that of the Deist Thomas Woolston. But Hogarth’s prints are full of representations of controversial figures of the day, and not all of them carry such a weight of meaning. In plate three of the Progress, for example, the Harlot pins a portrait of the high church fanatic (and anti-Deist) Dr. Henry Sacheverell to her wall. Does that turn the “Harlot’s Progress” into an allegory of the Church of England? Or does it not rather suggest that Moll is such a flibbertigibbet that her religious views change with every new protector?

As I pointed out in my previous letter, there is not an atom of proof that Hogarth was himself a Deist. Without pausing to answer this fundamental objection to his Deist reading of the Progress, Paulson now states that Hogarth “carries scepticism to the edge of blasphemy.” But once again, turn to his text (Vol. I, p. 291) and all we learn is that “Hogarth may have felt some sympathy for (Woolston)”—hardly cast-iron proof of Paulson’s claim that the Harlot’s Progress allegorizes Woolston’s pamphlets questioning the historical validity of the Resurrection and the Virgin Birth. But the list of such objections is endless and space is limited. When I describe Paulson’s method as pure, undiluted conjecture he replies that, on the contrary, his theories represent “inference from data.” What data?

The answer by now should be clear. Time and again, in his letter as in his book, Paulson cites his own far-fetched interpretations of earlier images as evidence for new and even more far-fetched readings of later works. This he calls “contextualizing.” A perfect example is his madcap speculation regarding the relationship of Hogarth, his wife, and father-in-law as supposedly symbolized in the subject of the Rape of Europa. When I asked for some external support for what looks, on the face of it, like the author’s fantasy, he simply refers me to his own earlier interpretation of Hogarth’s illustrations of Shakespeare’s Tempest and of Milton’s Satan Sin and Death.

But this circular argument is worthless because I do not believe those earlier interpretations. Paulson’s convoluted discussion of Hogarth’s unpretentious little scene from the Tempest, for example, turns the subject into a private psychodrama illustrating what Paulson calls “Hogarth’s myth of himself, Jane, and (his father-in-law).” Here I cry out in frustration: “What myth? The one you just made up?”

As it happens, we have a near contemporary source who mentions the relationship Paulson makes such a meal of. After describing the young couple’s elopement in 1729 and Jane’s father’s subsequent anger, Hogarth’s early biographer John Nichols adds that “soon after, (he) became both reconciled and generous to the young couple; and lived with them in great harmony.” Somehow this does not sound to me like the trauma that would lead Hogarth to return to the subject as late as 1745 (the date of the print in which the image of “Europe and the Bull” appears), sixteen years after his marriage.

I can understand that no writer likes a reviewer to say that he has written a great deal of nonsense. I therefore ignored the stream of invective which constituted so prominent a part of Professor Paulson’s original response to my review. I must, however, respond to one jibe in his present letter, that I did not read but “dipped into” his text. In fact I read the three volumes carefully over a period of four months last autumn. What I concluded from that experience was that large sections of Paulson’s text were like a house of cards, unable to stand up to the slightest breath of historical or critical scrutiny. It was my job as a reviewer to say so.

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