Burke was wrong. In February 1792, his impassioned obituary for Joshua Reynolds called the painter “the first Englishman who added the praise of the elegant arts to the other glories of his country.” John Constable disagreed.

“Hogarth was born twenty-six years before Sir Joshua,” Constable argued in June 1836 in a lecture at the Royal Institution, “and had published his engravings of A Harlot’s Progress when Reynolds was but eleven years’ old.”

Constable wondered if Burke had been misled by Horace Walpole. In Anecdotes of English Painting (1771), Walpole had assessed his late friend Hogarth as “a great and original genius,” but more “a writer of comedy with a pencil” than a painter.

Constable was right to question Walpole’s dismissal of Hogarth. But Constable was only half-right about Hogarth’s place in English painting. “It is, however, to Reynolds that the honour of establishing the English school belongs,” Constable concluded. “Hogarth had no school, nor has he ever been imitated with tolerable success.”

By weaving between English particularities, Hogarth defined the dilemmas of English style.

Yet no painter before Reynolds did more than Hogarth to establish an English identity in art. Reynolds may have opened the English school in the Grand Manner with his Royal Academy Discourses in the 1770s, but it was Godfrey Kneller and James Thornhill who had broken the ground for that school in the early 1700s, and Hogarth who had laid its foundations in the 1730s and 1740s. Hogarth, despite his patriotic contempt for everything foreign, reconciled the international style of Rococo with the English setting. And by weaving between the English peculiarities of the “Modern Moral Subject” and the international Classicism of history painting, Hogarth defined the dilemmas of English style. Walpole’s half-true claim that Hogarth “had no model to follow and improve upon” is as much a measure of Hogarth’s success as his failure. Dickens was never imitated with tolerable success, either, yet Dickens defines the English novel.

The foundations of an English school were, however, more than stylistic. A school needs fees from its pupils, and must pay its teachers too. The handling of paint can never be wholly distinct from the handling of money. Hogarth, by driving the petition that led to the Copyright Act of 1753, made it possible for British artists to profit from the sale of reproductions to the middle classes. This lesson in the English vernacular of contracts and commerce was to underwrite the independence of the renegades of the English school, Blake and Turner.

Hogarth, Elizabeth Einberg writes in her preface to Hogarth: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, was the subject of “the first book devoted to a single British artist”—Biographical Anecdotes of Hogarth with a Catalogue of his Works (1781) by the Shakespeare scholar George Steevens and the literary editor Isaac Reed.1 Since then, anecdotes of the life and times have taken precedence over the cataloging of the work.

It is no slight to recent biographers like Ronald Paulson, David Bindman, and Jenny Uglow that, as in the subtitle of Paulson’s three-volume biography, His Life, Art, and Times, the art is usually sandwiched between the man and the age. Hogarth is a wonderful character—self-made and self-mocking, candidly ambitious and patriotic, easily slighted and angered. His life is a grand tour through the social and moral microcosm of Georgian London. His satires abound in easy English pleasures—lechery, drink, gambling, mockery, sanctimony, slapstick, cruelty to animals, and abuse of the French.

For all of these reasons, Hogarth’s portraits have been less popular, and his history paintings even less so. Einberg’s catalogue raisonée presents all of Hogarth’s paintings in chronological order. The portraits and history paintings mingle with the more famous satires. Each picture receives a capsule essay of similar length, regardless of genre. Every essay is a marvel of scholarly concision and biographical context. As the pictures speak for themselves, Einberg avoids speaking on their behalf—or ours, by ranking Hogarth by genre.

Controlled flashes of painterly skill always tell us about the sitter too.

The effect of Hogarth’s portraits is as direct as the gaze of his sitters. Hogarth is generous to sitter and viewer alike—“liberal,” in the parlance of his day. The figures sit well in their spaces. The lighting of the interiors is carefully staged. The brush serves the characterization. The eye is solicited with measured flourishes, rather than dazzled or distracted with flamboyance. Controlled flashes of painterly skill remind the sitter that Hogarth is worth the money, but they always tell us about the sitter too.

The merchant George Arnold (ca. 1740–45) faces us four-square, his head slightly cocked as if listening to a report from one of his cattle dealers. The sheen of his gray-blue coat is just rich enough, the shadowing of the ruffles that fall over his wrist just warm enough, and the curls of his wig just ovine enough to show that he has solid money, solid taste, and a conscience too. The left side of his face is resolute, but the right side is slightly crumpled, as if by grief. Arnold’s wife, Einberg notes, died in 1741. Hogarth, by letting the light fall on Arnold’s left cheek, protects Arnold’s private sorrow as he exposes it.

Arnold’s daughter, Miss Frances Arnold (ca. 1741–45), inherits her father’s slightly lopsided physiognomy. The left side of her face too is the public face. This time, Hogarth sits her at an angle, with the light coming from her right. This casts her left cheek into shadow, and brings forward her right cheek. She wears a chemise trimmed with white lace, an oyster-white wrap-over dress, and a light flush on her cheek. Her dark hair is neat but undressed, her only jewelry is a string of pearls at her neck. Her right eyebrow is relaxed, and the right corner of her mouth hints at an appraising smile. In her father’s will, her brother will get the estate, and her two sisters £500 apiece, but Frances will get £2,500 and all the family silver.

Over and again, Hogarth strikes the telling detail. The blue-eyed defiance of Mary Edwards (1742), the single mother in a dress of scarlet damask who, Walpole records, “died of drams.” The dash of ruby port in the blooming pink cheek of the navy captain John Hamilton (ca. 1740–45). The flush of neediness and pride on Hogarth’s friend, the Irish actor James Quin (ca. 1739) who, Einberg writes, was “vain and hot-tempered,” but also “generous and convivial, and possessed of a brilliant, if sometimes coarse, wit.” The jet of brown vomit from the mouth of Francis Matthew Schutz (ca. 1755–60), whose wife, to shock him out of the “Vice of Intemperance,” commissioned Hogarth to paint an intervention.

Schutz’s heirs had the vomit painted out, and the chamber pot turned into a piece of paper, so that Schutz was reading in bed. There is no avoiding literature with Hogarth. Every picture tells a story.

“Subjects I consider’d as writers do,” he wrote in Autobiographical Notes (1763). “My Picture was my Stage, and men and women my actors, who were by Means of certain actions and expressions to Exhibit a dumb shew.”

For Hogarth, the truths of nature are allegorical. The supporting cast of generic figures—the African servant, the Jewish merchant, the randy monkey, the dandy Frenchman, the syphilitic ponce—frame both the narrative and the accusation. The crowd turns on the criminal, and real Londoners are named and shamed. In The Harlot’s Progress (1729–31), Moll Hackabout is generic, a clergyman’s daughter freshly arrived from the country. Mother Needham, the pock-faced procuress who picks her up from the stage coach, is real. So are the notorious rake Colonel Charteris, who ogles Moll with one hand in his pocket, and Sir John Gonson, the magistrate who arrests Moll while her criminal boyfriends escape the law.

In Hogarth’s moral narratives, objects are not mute forms.

In this moralizing impulse, Dickens is not Hogarth’s imitator, but his inheritor. In Hogarth’s moral narratives, objects are not mute forms. They are speaking things, like the cows that loom out of the fog to assail Pip Pirrip’s conscience as he takes his sister’s pork pie and brandy to Magwitch. Like Dickens, Hogarth was the son of a dreamer whose failure led to debtor’s prison, and the shaming of the family. Like Dickens, Hogarth returns in imagination to the condemned man in the jail cell. Like Hogarth, Dickens shows how the mixing of law, money, and architecture animates the urban fabric, and works on the weak.

Dickens’s objects, Chesterton wrote, are alive with “the unbearable realism of a dream.” The actions and expressions in Hogarth’s society portraits are couched in no less articulate settings. It is the satiric narratives that Hogarth, who may have begun as a sign painter, adorns with verbal prompts—the prosaic reality of tavern signs, newspapers, and letters. In “The Tête à Tête” from Marriage-à-la Mode (1744), the debris of the night before includes a musical script that has fallen to the floor, a copy of the card player’s manual Hoyle on Whist (1742), and a sheaf of bills in the steward’s hand, one of which, dated 1743, is a year old.

In The Distressed Poet (ca. 1736), the travails of Grub Street are dramatized as a struggle between three forms of commercial writing. The poet struggles to finish the verse that shall feed his wife and child. To counterfeit his inspiration, he has opened the rhyming dictionary of Edward Bysshe’s Art of English Poetry (1702). A milkmaid enters the room, waving an unpaid tally stick. Her bill, like Dr. Johnson’s rock, refutes the poet’s intellectual conceit, just as Hogarth’s placement of the rhyming dictionary reveals the poet’s artistic deceit. Authentic illiteracy beats inauthentic rhetoric.

This loathing of pretension and fakery drove what Gombrich called Hogarth’s “grim campaign against fashionable taste.” The enemy was not taste, but fashion—the “foppishness” of the Burlington House set, the etiolated falseness of the fête galante. The battle lines were also social and economic, pitting the aristocratic patrons of Westminster against the vulgar artisans of the City, and moral too. The greatest and most revolting of Hogarth’s many studies in viciousness is blind Lord Albemarle Bertie in The Cock-Pit (1759). The rictus on Bertie’s face as he smells the blood and feels the money, and the way that he covers his groin with his hat, suggests that his lordship, like a hanged criminal, is ejaculating into his breeches.

Like John Wilkes, Hogarth attacked French manners and French-style oligarchy with the sword of common sense and the shield of popular approval. In a polemical letter to the papers against “foreign interlopers,” Hogarth signed himself “Britophil.” When he aimed The Analysis of Beauty (1753) at the citadel of taste, he dedicated it to the army on the plain below: “But if for once we may suppose nobody to be everybody, as every body is often said to be nobody, then is this work dedicated to every body.”

Hogarth’s relationship to Frenchified gentility set the buyers of oils against the buyers of subscription tickets, but it also set his pen against his brush, and his comic genius against his tragic ambitions. In the left foreground of “Noon,” the second panel of The Four Times of the Day (1736–37), Hogarth ridicules a dandified French couple and their fat, knock-kneed son. But the crying urchin in the right foreground is lifted from Poussin’s first version of Rape of the Sabine Women (1633–34). Twice, in 1743 and 1748, Britophil went to Paris because he knew that French engravers would do a better job on his work than English ones.

Hogarth’s spoofing of Watteau shows that mockery can be as sincere a form of flattery as imitation. In the third scene of The Rake’s Progress (1734), Tom sprawls impotent with drink among the whores at the Rose Tavern. His posture ridicules that of Watteau’s Antoine de la Roque (1718), an old soldier who reclines in a wood with nymphs, satyrs, and an incapacitating battle wound.

In the seduction scenes of Before and After (1730–31), Hogarth sets up a dainty Watteau seduction, then sends in the clowns. In the outdoor seduction, the couple tries to sustain their French manners, but his breeches are falling open and her dress is riding up. In the indoor scene, the man no longer bothers, but woozily yanks up his red breeches and prepares for a quick exit. Yet Watteau, by loosening the Classical corsetry, opened the path of the “merry dance” to Hogarth’s brush.

Privately, Hogarth seems to have felt the same ambivalence. In his Self-Portrait with Palette (ca. 1732–35), he painted himself wearing an artisan’s cap, then reconsidered, and added a full wig. In Self-Portrait with Pug (1745), he started in a wig, but then painted it over with a red cap that showed part of his shaved head. By then, Hogarth was agreeably established, and enmeshed in contention.

Einberg suggests that Hogarth’s disavowal of gentlemanly trimmings may have been “triggered by his trip to Paris in 1743.” In Paris, Hogarth would have met “an artistic community with a much better self-image and higher status than in Britain.” If so, the holiday romance was hard to sustain. In the second self-portrait, the Baroque defense of the frame within a frame is not enough. Hogarth barricades himself behind a bulldog, a stack of books, a curtain, and a palette bearing his aesthetic missile, the serpentine line that he would defend in The Line of Beauty.

The history of styles,” Nikolaus Pevsner wrote in The Englishness of English Art (1955), “as well as the cultural geography of nations can only be successful—that is, approach truth—if it is conducted in terms of polarities, that is, in pairs of apparently contradictory qualities. English art is Constable and Turner, it is the formal house and the informal, picturesque garden surrounding it.”

Hogarth is not good in gardens. In a complex indoor scene like William Wollaston and His Family in a Grand Interior (1730), the two halves of a family float on a rug like two parties of survivors on a raft. Wollaston stands between the groups like a captain trying to prevent an outbreak of cannibalism when his will is read. In the city streets, where social informality is channeled through formal architecture, Hogarth accomplishes even more elaborate webs of relation. Outside London, however, he is adrift. The supporting cast is missing, the narrative is bowdlerized. He struggles with the composition, and loses his balance. His country house subjects float in green seas of parkland. Most of them look miserable.

Hogarth’s most successful excursion to the country occurs within a formal house. “The Dance” (ca. 1745) is the sixth painting in the unfinished sequence The Happy Marriage. This oil sketch has been sold and exhibited under various titles—“The First Sketch of the Dance to the Analysis of Beauty” (1801), “The Analysis of Beauty” (1804), “The Happy Wedding, The Ball” (1850), and “Sketch for a Country Dance at the Wanstead Assembly, Essex” (1875). Almost all of these titles link the pleasures of the flowing line to the rites that sustain a society.

It is night, the moon is rising, and the music playing. We enter the great hall of a Jacobean country house—the English Baroque of the black pendant on the minstrel gallery, the glow of candles on the golden pelmet over the window bay, the crosshatching of lead over glass in the windows—just as the dance commands the men to execute a skip and a turn. What happens next shows how different Hogarth’s England was from the rest of Europe. Instead of Tiepolo’s flattery by infinite recession, we see comedy in a closed space.

A bow-legged beanpole is caught flat-footed. A fat man kicks out a leg, but his thick thigh bounces off the orb of his belly. A bald man sneers, and barely lifts a foot. A boy leaps with more energy than grace. And one man takes off his wig, leans out of the open window, and wipes his bald head with a handkerchief that catches the moonlight. This is not the grand style, but the greatness of a society that, though more liberal than democratic, reconciled the aristocratic and commercial classes, the country and the city.

Pevsner, writing a decade after D-Day, describes Hogarth’s art as a form of “combined operations.” The “shallow, elegant, undulating” double curve is a feature of English art from the 1300s to William Blake, and also an “international principle of Late Baroque and Rococo.” Hogarth is against Rococo in his sensibility, but with Rococo in his sensuality—against Rococo in language, but with it in line. This contradiction led to the confusion of comedy and tragedy. Walpole disapprovingly placed Hogarth “between the Italians whom we may consider as epic poets and tragedians, and the Flemish painters, who are as writers of farce and editors of burlesque nature.” But the merry, mercantile dance of English life demanded nothing less.

What, Hogarth asks, shall be the modern grand style? And by whom shall it be defined? Like Laurence Sterne, Hogarth recognized that stylistic impurity, the confounding of the grand with the silly, the great with the base, was the English style. While Hogarth promoted his work as “Comic-historical,” the theater rediscovered Shakespeare, and restored his texts to their original impurity. Britain’s “Year of Victories” over the French—1759—was the year of Tristram Shandy, whose narrative follows the merry dance despite his uncle’s incapacitating war injury. It was also the year of the battle of Sigismunda and Hogarth’s defeat in the war for the grand style.

Sigismunda Mourning over the Heart of Guiscardo was Hogarth’s last history painting, and a last stand against Reynolds’s sniping at Hogarth’s technical limitations. The subject is from Boccaccio. Sigismunda, the daughter of Prince Tancred, secretly marries his retainer Guiscardo. Tancred executes Guiscardo and sends his heart to Sigismunda in a golden goblet. Hogarth depicts her just after receiving the heart—and just before she will kill herself.

Sigismunda began as a commission from Sir Richard Grosvenor. But Grosvenor rejected the finished painting. Furious and humiliated, Hogarth exhibited it in May 1761 to the public—and was obliged to withdraw it after only ten days. Horace Walpole, who knew that Hogarth’s wife had modeled for the painting, described Sigismunda as “a maudlin whore.” Walpole was especially repelled by the fact that Hogarth had shown her fingers “bloody with the heart as if she had just bought a sheep’s pluck in St. James’s market.” Hogarth painted out the blood and made many other changes, but the damage, to his standing and his pride, was done.

Taste, not skill, was the reason for the rejection of Sigismunda. In his autobiographical notes, written shortly before his death in 1764, Hogarth recalls that he wanted to show that a picture, no less than an actor, could “fetch a Tear from the Spectator.” In approaching the high style by theatrical, even vulgar, means, Hogarth got ahead of the critics—and leapfrogged ahead of Reynolds, who was to advise the Royal Academy in the 1770s that “heroic action or heroic suffering” and “the great events of Greek and Roman fable and history” must not be “degraded by the vulgarism of ordinary life.”

In Sigismunda, Hogarth forced together the base and horrific with the exalted and graceful. By luck or design, he had struck upon a script for Gothic melodrama—and perhaps held up a mirror to the hammy theatricality that was to possess Walpole. For 1764, the year of Hogarth’s death, was also the year in which Walpole wrote The Castle of Otranto. Hogarth and Walpole, the artisan and the aristocratic connoisseur, were near neighbors, and closer in taste than Walpole cared to admit.

Several decades would pass before Dickens would prove that Gothic too was a mingling of the grand and the vulgar, the historic and the modern in the English style. In their delayed recognitions, wars of taste evoke Burke’s words on wars of religion: “It was long before the spirit of true piety and true wisdom, involved in the principles of the Reformation, could be depurated from the dregs and feculence of the contention with which it was carried through.”

1 William Hogarth: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, edited by Elizabeth Einberg; Yale University Press, 432 pages, $150.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 8, on page 46
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