Hogarth’s Progress

Hogarth: His Life, Art, and Times

by Ronald Paulson
Yale, two volumes, 1,115 pp., $40.00

William Hogarth
William Hogarth; drawing by David Levine

This book is vast—a great river of words, flowing majestically on, but like most great rivers, it loops and winds and backtracks. Half a million words on Hogarth! Every parish register, every rate book, all the London newspapers have been ransacked for facts about Hogarth’s parents, even his uncles and cousins. Methodically Ronald Paulson takes us through Hogarth’s father’s life—a record of steady failure: he was in turn schoolmaster, textbook writer, coffee house keeper, and succeeded at none of these. For most of Hogarth’s childhood they lived close to Smithfield Market, as violent, as coarse, and as vital a part of the city of London as one could find; the home of that yearly fiesta of bucolic culture that Bruegel would have reveled in, St. Bartholomew’s Fair with its deformities, conjurers, tricksters, and vulgarities of every hue—an epitome of raw human life at once tawdry and pathetic. Paulson carefully re-creates this tough, cruel world in which Hogarth grew up and, in some ways, the description gains force from this careful, factual, and topographical treatment.

Slowly and steadily we move on through the years of Hogarth’s apprenticeship, when his father was cast into the Fleet Prison, to his days as a silver engraver and his acquaintance with Sir John Thornhill, marriage to his daughter, and emergence as a painter and engraver. Print by print, picture by picture, we follow him to the grave; the careful, critical evaluations are, of course, relieved by the stories of his violent quarrels and his rumbumptious relations with fellow artists. An unquiet character who loved decision and action, the more violent the better, Hogarth bludgeoned his way through the middle decades of the eighteenth century, an obvious genius but seemingly at odds with the mainstream of art of his day.

Most of his historical pictures were a dreadful flop; his conversation pieces often awkward although always fascinating, for it was a genre in which he was never happy. He painted marvelous portraits—surely Captain Coram is one of the finest of the eighteenth century—and yet he was never deeply satisfied as a portraitist. Twice he nearly gave up oil painting altogether, partly because there was so little money in it for him, compared with his engraving, and partly, I suspect, because he knew well enough that his genius was never totally involved, as it was in what most of us would call his satirical prints and what Hogarth once called his modern history paintings. Hogarth, with the self-knowledge of a truly creative artist, was on sure ground—here, if anywhere, lay his originality and his singular excellence. On these great series, A Harlot’s Progress and Rake’s Progress, Marriage à la Mode, Four Stages of Cruelty, and the rest, Professor Paulson is at his best, careful as always, a little long-winded, but truly perceptive; and his analysis is often brilliant.

This painstaking biography is far larger than it need be:…

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