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 hospital’s first board of governors, and, without charge, made a huge portrait of its founder, Captain Thomas Coram, and designed the uniform the children wore. Going through his achievements, it is hard not to fall in love with Hogarth a little, and this despite (or maybe because of?) the truculence, touchiness, and strutting self-importance he apparently brought to many occasions. Less than five feet tall (and thought short by his contemporaries), he had the temperament that stereotypically goes with the size. Although he and his wife, Jane Thornhill, had no children in their long marriage, he did a lot of metaphoric fathering everywhere else.

Yet at the London show, which opened at the Louvre last fall and traveled to Barcelona this spring, what was most alive and distinctive about Hogarth was less his wide-ranging ambitions or the vast world he presents than a number of lovely, elusive, and not so titanic qualities. For all that Hogarth himself is a vivid and solid presence, he doesn’t do what an artist about whom, say, we know little or nothing, and whose work sounds the same note again and again, might do: stop us in our tracks with a mesmerizing and personal way of looking at the world, one that makes us see space, color, or shape differently. Hogarth’s best pictures fittingly have to do with beginnings. He was wonderful at capturing facial expressions that suggest a kind of frank, bubbling, instantaneous response to life and, perhaps because of this, he was an inventive and sympathetic painter of children. He had a gift as well for showing moments when light or darkness is first being felt, and when faces, in the dark, reflect a pale illumination.

Much of Hogarth’s work, however, failed to catch fire. Too many of his attempts at what were, at least in England, relatively new kinds of painting, whether his group portraits, his historical or allegorical works, his paintings based on plays, even his satiric images of the ups and downs of London’s social life, felt insubstantial or halfhearted. A viewer could understand why Hogarth jumped around so much: very few kinds of painting sustained their interest for him. At the same time, he was clearly a greatly gifted man and one whose striving in itself is stimulating; and so to some degree the experience of his work, despite certain masterpieces and numerous delightful passages of brushwork and color here and there, is less about visceral enjoyment than decipherment. The experience is more literary than visual, and to the artist’s admirers from his day forward this would come as no surprise. Hogarth has long been written about as an artist whose pictures need as much (or more) to be “read” as seen. He seems to have half-thought this was the case himself.


It is crucial to realize that there were two Hogarths, the printmaker and the painter, and while they are, unfortunately, often blurred together in accounts of the artist, the two sides of him had quite different talents, aspirations, even audiences. It is Hogarth the painter who at times can touch us and hold our deepest attention; yet painting for him was an iffy combination of a quest for glory and a continual improvisation, whereas printmaking was, so to speak, his day job, and the relationship of his two selves was not mutually beneficial.

Printmaking was where Hogarth started, in that his training was as an engraver; and partly because of a new and increasingly widespread market for prints, which made the activity an occasionally quite profitable one, and partly out of a temperamental need to have his say regularly in a public forum, Hogarth never stopped thinking of engravings as a fast way to reach a large audience. For much of his life he saw the medium as a chance to comment, often through allegorical scenes, on the fads, delusions, and personalities of the day. In his later years, his engravings sometimes addressed what he saw as the ill effects of party politics; and when his own politics were questioned or ridiculed, he shot back answers to his critics in the form of more prints.

From the beginning, Hogarth saw prints in addition as images that needed to be read—or decoded or unraveled—to be fully appreciated. His engravings are composed of little visual signs that ask to be given literary meanings in order to create a narrative—such as when a table is overturned, a person has particular skin blemishes, a certain statue is on a mantelpiece, a harlot has a type of hat near her bed, a man has his hand in his pocket in a suggestive way, or a spaniel is sleeping or awake. There are also in his prints items that literally need to be read: signs hanging outside buildings, posters on a wall, book titles, sheets of music with lyrics.

Although it isn’t generally said in the commentaries on him, printmaking might have represented the part of Hogarth that wanted to be a writer of sorts. His father had aimed to be a literary man—and it was Richard Hogarth’s failure at it that landed him and his family in debtor’s lodgings for four years, a defining experience especially for William, his only son among three children and ten years old at the beginning of the confinement. The social disgrace surely had a part in Hogarth’s ever-vigilant awareness of society’s failings, expressed in his printed images.

Whether or not Hogarth’s printmaking had anything to do with redressing his father’s inability to make it as an author, Hogarth as a grown man certainly was more at home among, and more appreciated by, writers (including Swift, Fielding, and Sterne) than artists—and this despite his efforts on behalf of artists. Among writers he could be a kind of nonthreatening lay brother, while among painters and graphic artists the famously self-centered and insecure Hogarth often needed to trump the situation. He has remained a writer’s artist in that most of the biographical and critical studies on him seem to derive from members of English departments or from writers who are happier discussing works of literature than art. These studies, in turn, are very often based on the engravings, as is, say, The Other Hogarth, a 2001 collection of essays by English, German, French, and American scholars which analyze the artist’s, and his era’s, thinking about blacks and slavery, homosexuals, women and prostitution, and venereal disease.1

Taken on their own, Hogarth’s prints unquestionably have their engaging moments. But, done largely in various shades of gray cross-hatching, and usually quite densely detailed, with little in the way of airy, open areas and drawn in an impersonal style that tends to leave most of the figures looking like somewhat generic yokels, hucksters, harridans, and tarts, they are the opposite of inviting when seen together on a gallery wall. Especially when presented in number, they form a kind of staticky gray blur. When they can be encountered in a book, however, with an explanatory commentary nearby, the experience of reading and looking, or completing the image by learning what all the references are, can be pleasant. It is rather like the way we are asked to appreciate conceptual art.


Hogarth the printmaker was a kind of medieval man in the street, full of wisdom, caution, and shrewdness, at one with the urban flow in all its rambunctious, self-deluding life and yet above it. Hogarth the painter, on the other hand, was a would-be worldlier man, an artist who wanted to be England’s first home-grown van Dyck. Painting for Hogarth was more about the individual than the crowd—literally so, as it was largely in his oils, not his prints, that he made single and group portraits. More than this, painting, I think, enabled Hogarth to express something extremely personal in that it was in his paintings of faces and, to a lesser extent, of bodily movements that he now and then captured a certain expectant and spontaneous response to existence—a response we keenly feel in reading about Hogarth himself.

Hogarth’s ability with faces has hardly gone unnoticed. P.N. Furbank put it definitively when he wrote in these pages that “everything great in Hogarth ultimately takes its meaning from his faces”—though one might not go along with Furbank’s belief that Hogarth was always successful in the matter.2 Mrs. Salter (1741 or 1744), for example, presents one of Hogarth’s most memorable faces, that of a plain, unguarded, slightly perspiry and fleshy person—and is a powerful portrait as well. The raw, candid way Elizabeth Salter looks at us, the billowing pumpkin-colored dress she wears, and the picture’s breathing, powdery-yet-oily surface are somehow inseparable elements. Yet while Hogarth could masterfully catch a person’s particular vitality or ingenuousness, portraiture in itself, which encompasses more than a sitter’s features, didn’t always engage his imagination. Many of his portraits are handsome works which don’t particularly say “Hogarth” and come across chiefly as decorous glimpses of the past.

Hogarth’s concern above all for a momentary expression is borne out by the fact that his two most admired (or most reproduced) paintings are studies of faces and not full-fledged portraits. They are The Shrimp Girl (circa 1740–1745), a sketchily soft-focus image of a smiling, happy young street vendor, and Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants (circa 1750–1755), a far more detailed sketch, surprisingly monumental in scale, of so many sensitively delineated heads, each turned subtly toward or away from us. It is of a piece with the unmethodical way Hogarth thought about painting itself that these pictures don’t look like the work of the same hand, and, in all the rest of his painting, there is no picture with the feathery touch and breezy sweetness of his street seller and no picture with the appearance or the gravity of his heads of his servants.

The Graham Children (1742), in turn, an image of four children and, memorably, a cat who has climbed up on a chair and is entranced by a bird in a cage, is a picture about instinctiveness and candor that goes off in a completely different direction. In its technique, it is a highly polished, even airless affair; but Hogarth’s daring in making a monumental painting, measuring about five by six feet, of children, and in having the two central Graham girls present themselves in such a commandingly guileless way, can still be felt. Hogarth’s rapport with a nearly anarchic spontaneity—and with children as embodiments of it—is what ignites The Cholmondeley Family (1732), a formal group portrait where, on one side of the scene, unnoticed by the adults, a little boy is about to kick over a pile of books. In a group portrait entitled Captain Lord George Graham in His Cabin (circa 1745), Hogarth’s desire to paint what might be called pure animatedness becomes almost spooky. The lifelikeness of the faces of some of the men (as opposed to their being simply very realistically painted) is startling, especially that of a young servant, entering the scene from the side, who looks directly out at us with a laughing smile.

The works of Hogarth’s that have generated the most commentary, however, are his satiric pictures of London society of the time, particularly A Rake’s Progress (1732–1733) and Marriage A-la-Mode (1743–1745). Each presents a single story over the course of a half-dozen or so separate pictures, and each was done in the form of paintings and then published as prints. Standing before these pictures in a gallery, though, one can feel that the great amount that has been written about them—as moral tracts, as pieces of history or sociology, and as novels or plays in paint—has overreached what they offer as visual objects on a wall. True, Hogarth’s adventurousness in expanding an image into a narrative—an effort that apparently no painter had undertaken before—is undeniable. There are plenty of details to enjoy, too, especially in Marriage: the fop with his legs tightly crossed and his hair in curlers; the way people sit exhaustedly, their legs stretched out like planks; the assembly of bric-a-brac just brought home from auction.

Nor does Hogarth dissipate his stories with tiresomely upstanding characters or last-minute sentimentality. In A Rake’s Progress, our hero Tom Rakewell is too callow even to acknowledge the good woman who loves him, and by the end he has lost his inheritance and, chained to the floor in Bedlam, his sanity. Marriage A-la-Mode, which charts a loveless marital union concocted by parents for purely social and financial reasons, ends with husband and wife dead and her father carefully removing her gold wedding band as rigor mortis sets in. The child of this worthless union meanwhile is possibly carrying an inherited venereal disease.

For many, Tom Rakewell and the young married couple are as absorbing as the characters in a play or novel. Jenny Uglow, the painter’s most recent biographer, perceptively describes Hogarth’s various young people as “dangers to themselves.”3 But in the end, Hogarth’s story in Marriage, say, is no more what gives the work its continuing life than the brushwork, color, sense of light, and overall formal tone or thrust of the scenes. To some degree, Hogarth’s people in these “modern moral subjects,” as he called them, and particularly those in Marriage, are actually flimsier and more puppetlike than the figures in the works of other genre painters—Gerard ter Borch, say, or Chardin—perhaps because so much of Hogarth’s energy has gone into the pure mechanics of getting in place his cast of characters, plot lines, sets, and props. He puts so much effort into the engineering of his narratives there is little room for any ambiguity or emotion.

There is a kind of mystery, however, in A Rake’s Progress. It is a finer work than Marriage, not because of anything to do with its story but because it is more beautifully painted. It is earlier in date, and in it, and in another multipart work from the 1730s, The Four Times of Day, Hogarth seems both to be struggling with the often viscous nature of paint and to be entranced by its sheer sensuousness. There is a cake-frosting-like lusciousness to his painting of light, and, perhaps as part of his larger program to bring more of everyday reality into art, he makes palpable the pressing amount of darkness—and the scanty, glittery nighttime illumination—people lived with at the time.

In individual canvases from A Rake’s Progress and from the Times of Day, Hogarth’s feeling for the effects of lantern light or firelight in smoky, dark gambling rooms or of hazy sunlight filtering into a church, or the way Covent Garden looks on a winter morning when we can hardly tell where the illumination is coming from, is what gives the paintings their resonance. Night, from the Times series, which shows some Londoners bumbling down a dark street—their way guided by lanterns, the moon, a barber shop lit with candles, and tiny fires here and there—is an enchanting mass of grays and browns in which varying degrees of ivory white pick up the faces of people and the outlines of buildings (see illustration on page 16).

Hogarth didn’t exactly decline as an artist after the 1730s (when he was in his thirties). His paintings of Mrs. Salter, the Graham children, and his servants are all from the 1740s and 1750s, and a charming self-portrait where he sits before his easel and his demeanor conveys the readied aggressivity of a boxer is thought to date from around 1757 (see illustration on page 18). Over the years, he actually developed the same degree of precision with oil and brush that he had long had with his engraver’s tools. Yet his growing proficiency as a painter represented a bit of a loss for Hogarth, too, as his painting in general took on the more linear, tightly outlined nature of his prints. Marriage A-la-Mode suffers from being too tightly drawn and painted, with all the little telltale details clear as day, and amusing as is the Election series of 1754–1755, four large pictures which illustrate some of the possibilities for travesty and burlesque in the electoral process, these paintings have the appearance of colored-in prints.

If the Tate’s show felt distant, even too large, the fault in part was due to the presentation of the work, which, laid out by theme—portraits, street life, theater life, self-portraits, group pictures, scenes of rack and ruin, and so forth—was more like a history lesson than the unfolding of an artist’s development. (Hogarth, who undoubtedly was proud of the many fields he invented or reinvigorated, probably would have liked the approach.) When the time comes for another look at the artist, however, he might benefit from having his work presented in a much more selective show, perhaps even one that, including work by Watteau and Chardin, his most esteemed French near-contemporaries, is more of a three-person exhibition. The English artist knew their paintings firsthand and through engravings, and, as Robin Simon points out in his richly informative Hogarth, France and British Art, he probably visited Chardin’s studio on a trip to Paris.

Hogarth isn’t quite in their league. Unlike them, he didn’t invent new ways of looking at form—he is more the sort of artist who puts new feeling into an already existing formal language. Yet all three at their best were involved with bringing into the art of the early eighteenth century a badly needed connection with contemporary manners, faces, and clothes. The French painters also made particularly fine pictures of children, and Chardin and Hogarth at times gave their paint surfaces a similar meaty richness.

The connection between Hogarth and Watteau, who was in London for a year in 1719–1720 just when Hogarth was starting to paint, is more tantalizing. In the French painter’s masterpiece Pierrot (called Gilles), an enigmatic image of an actor in white, standing stiffly before us with an indecipherable expression on his face, there is a character on the side who looks out at us in exactly the unnervingly intimate way the young servant does in Hogarth’s group portrait of Captain Graham in his cabin. Some of Watteau’s most remarkable drawings in addition are studies of groups of heads which, as Robin Simon notes, float next to one another precisely as they do in Hogarth’s study of his six servants. Seen in the body of his paintings, Hogarth’s picture is something of a private, experimental work. Seen alongside Watteau’s marvelous drawn versions, it would become part of a larger story, and it might shine forth all the more.

This Issue

June 28, 2007