William Hogarth 1697-1764
By Aliza Wall
Few artists engaged the social world as ruthlessly as British painter, printmaker, political satirist, and social critic, William Hogarth. He was born November 10, 1697 in London to humble means, an upbringing for which he would never forgive his unsuccessful father. This childhood imbued Hogarth with his notorious self-assertiveness and independence. At age fifteen Hogarth was apprenticed to Ellis Gamble, a silver-plate engraver. During this time, Hogarth produced trade cards, funeral tickets, and other minor works.
At 23, Hogarth opened his own studio with the intention of escaping the limitations of silver-plate engraving. He enrolled in an academy founded by artists John Vanderbank and Louis Chéron, where he studied life drawing, for which he claimed to have a natural distaste. He, in light of all this, was largely self-taught as a painter. In 1721, he produced his first-known satirical piece entitled South Sea Scheme, which satirised the financial collapse of the South Sea Company, a British joint-stock company created to reduce the national debt. This early engraving typifies the Dutch influence that would continue throughout his later works. Hogarth’s first major work, Masquerades and Operas is emblematic of his satirical career. Produced in 1724, this piece attacked the contemporary Neoclassical taste promoted by the 3rd Earl of Burlington, an influential art patron and architect. The engraving depicts the home of the Earl (sarcastically named the Academy of Arts) and the opera, into which a fool and a satyr leads a crowd. This piece also exposes Hogarth’s oft overt xenophobia; he mocks the Italian opera and architecture for its perceived flamboyancy and shows contempt for the contemporary interest in foreign artists.
Hogarth’s work during the early 1630’s is marked by a distinct interest in morality. This interest is overtly depicted in his 1732 series, A Harlot’s Progress, in which an innocent country girl arrives in London, is tricked into prostitution, goes to prison, and dies. This piece was extremely well received by the public and thus established Hogarth’s financial and artistic independence. Unlike other artists, he was free to follow his own artistic whims. To protect this freedom, Hogarth spearheaded what is now known as the Hogarth Act; legislation protecting an artist’s ability to copyright their work.
Despite the success of his moralizing works, Hogarth aspired to work at the highest levels of society. After being elected governor of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, Hogarth created two large religious works, Pool of Bethesda (1736) and The Good Samaritan (1737). However, he is generally thought to have overreached himself. Around 1740, Hogarth turned to portraiture, painting primarily middle- class sitters of which his portrait of sea captain and philanthropist Captain Thomas Coram in the best known. It was also during this time that Hogarth painted the above self-portrait which is seen by many as the high point of his career. The Painter and his Pug (1745) juxtaposes Hogarth’s sharp features with those of his pug, Trump. The portrait itself rests upon works by British authors William Shakespeare, John Milton, and Jonathan Swift, alluding to the painter’s own intellect and fame. In the lower left corner, Hogarth has painted a “line of beauty,” his own symbol denoting the intricacy and expressiveness of nature. At age 48 Hogarth completed what is thought to be his greatest work—Marriage à la Mode, a series satirizing high society through its depiction of an arranged marriage gone wrong. This piece (like many others in Hogarth’s oeuvre) is painted in the Rococo style.
Hogarth’s failed 1751 auction of his work prompted a retreat into isolation. During this time, he simultaneously pursued his philanthropic interests and adopted a defiant and defensive public image that involved him in various artistic debates. He states his own views in his book, The Analysis of Beauty (1753), which combined advice on painting with criticisms of the art establishment. In his final years, Hogarth returned largely to moral works and sat on various artistic committees. He died on October 26, 1764 of an aneurysm.
Although often criticised during his lifetime, Hogarth is posthumously appreciated as a forefather of satire. He will forever appeal to the universal human love of the critical, the biting, and the honest.
Benenson, Susan Elizabeth. “William Hogarth.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Last modified October 22, 2108. https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-Hogarth.
Hubbard, Hesketh. “William Hogarth, The Founder of English Painting.” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts 80, no. 4139 (1932): 437-459. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41358993.
O’Conner, Sheila. “Hogarth, William.” Grove Art Online. January 1, 2003. https://doi.org/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.article.T038499.