London: Tate Publishing, 264 pp., £40.00; £29.99 (paper)
At Tate Britain’s recent William Hogarth exhibition, or in reading about him in the numerous hefty biographies and critical studies devoted to his paintings, his prints, and his era, it is easy to feel that you are in the presence of a heroic figure. In a country in which, when he came to maturity in the 1720s, there had never been any real traditions in the visual arts or even any significant native-born artists, he fashioned one type of picture-making endeavor after another. In some of his best-known work, suites of pictures called A Rake’s Progress and Marriage A-la-Mode, he made genre paintings out of the hypocrisies and calamities of London life of the time. He was the first English artist to make paintings based on plays, and, in a considerable body of engravings, he dealt with issues of work ethics, drinking abuses, and social delusions of the moment.
He also attempted what was considered the pinnacle of the painter’s art—history pictures, or works derived from the Bible or mythology—and, along the way, he was a portraitist and pioneered the making of pictures of like-minded groups, known as conversation pieces, while other paintings and prints take up the subjects of street life and contemporary politics.
Beginning as a silver engraver and then using his engraver’s talents for business cards and other small jobs, Hogarth wound up leaving succeeding generations of English painters and printmakers with examples that, whether they were emulated, tinkered with, or rejected, provided an invaluable start. And while he has rarely been seen outside England—the current show marks the first time his work has been presented in France and in Spain, and there has never been a full retrospective in the United States—the very adjective “Hogarthian” can conjure up a milieu and a time in the minds of people who have only seen reproductions of his work. The word plunges us immediately into the early-eighteenth-century world, where wigs don’t stay on straight, clubmen fall over themselves in drunken stupors, and harlots make their way through battered existences. There are rigged elections, crashing tables, and dogs and monkeys who, by their behavior, comment on the scenes. Spendthrifts come to ruin, French dancing masters mince about, and someone is invariably throwing up in a corner.
Hogarth’s accomplishments, though, go beyond the trail-blazing nature of his pictures. Before he died, in 1764, not quite sixty-seven, he put down his thoughts on art in The Analysis of Beauty, a work that, among other things, asks artists to take their inspiration from contemporary life, from what they see and not from rules—attitudes that were part of the thinking behind the art school he set up in London in 1735 and successfully ran for years. He was the driving force behind graphic artists getting copyright protection for the first time, and, too, behind the city’s first art shows, held at London’s Foundling Hospital. As it happened, he sat on the …