Robin Simon

A Painter’s Progress

William Hogarth: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings

By

Yale University Press 431pp £95 order from our bookshop

In 1859, the 25-year-old Edgar Degas, newly returned from Italy and settled in his first studio in Paris, chose to refine his drawing skills by copying Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress (1731), A Rake’s Progress (1734), The Four Times of Day (1736–7) and Marriage A-la-Mode (1743–4). He was following the advice of Ingres, who told him, ‘Draw lines, young man, and still more lines … and you will become a good artist.’ Hogarth’s engravings had been familiar in France for over a century, because he was the first British artist to export his own prints accompanied by commentaries in French. Within Hogarth’s lifetime Jean-Baptiste Greuze borrowed heavily from the Progresses and as a result turned his career around in the Salon of 1761. But Degas and Greuze would not have known that the artist they so admired also painted in oils and was an outstanding portraitist. 

Many people in Britain today are equally unaware of this side of Hogarth’s genius, but Elizabeth Einberg’s magnificent catalogue raisonné of his paintings should change all that. It is the result of decades of research and reflection, and reveals that this physically short (about five feet tall) and even more short-tempered artist was one of the finest painters the country ever produced.

In a way Hogarth has only himself to blame for the prevailing one-sided view. The huge success of his Progresses ensured that he would be chiefly remembered as a printmaker. As Hogarth knew (and as he told everyone), what he himself called his ‘modern moral subjects’ was an entirely new way of telling dramatic stories, in sequences of six or eight images, packed with detail, that enabled the viewer to read forwards and backwards through a narrative that grew ever more complex the more it was contemplated.

Hogarth himself turned his first series of canvases into prints, but he subsequently employed French engravers to provide a more sophisticated touch. Since, however, the paintings were essentially the vehicle for the prints, Hogarth did not always take the greatest care with them, especially when he himself was going to produce the plates: he might even paint in reverse in order to save time, a trick that avoided the use of a mirror during the process of engraving. Hogarth also made a point of selling these paintings off, sometimes through an auction or lottery conducted by himself. On such occasions he was not above a little jiggery-pokery in order to ensure that a picture might end up where he wanted it to go, which was how the Foundling Hospital, of which Hogarth was a governor, acquired The March of the Guards to Finchley.

The chief exception to his somewhat cavalier approach to creating paintings for prints is the exquisite Marriage A-la-Mode series, over which Hogarth took infinite pains. The reason is that he wanted to recruit engravers in Paris and so had to take the first painting along with him as a sample. French engravers were the finest available and French painters the most highly trained, and only Hogarth’s best painting would do (Hogarth shared several engravers with the great French painter Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, whose studio in Paris he visited). The subsequent five canvases in the Marriage A-la-Mode series had to live up to the promise of the first.

Hogarth admired Chardin, which may come as a surprise, since he is often thought of as anti-French. Yet even Hogarth’s most ferocious satire on France, Calais Gate, is tempered by the inclusion of a skate in the left-hand corner, in homage to Chardin’s most famous still life. Hogarth knew that the print after it (under the title O the Roast Beef of Old England) would swiftly be making its way to Paris and that Chardin would recognise the compliment. It is worth reflecting that Chardin was probably influenced by Hogarth’s engravings in his startling move away from still lifes to domestic genre scenes with figures in the early 1730s.

Although many of his best friends in London were French, Hogarth is recorded stomping about Paris exclaiming, ‘Their houses are all gilt and beshit!’ Hogarth was what Dr Johnson would have called ‘a good hater’, but he was also warm and loyal. His friends numbered Johnson himself and David Garrick, who, with his wife, sat for a dazzling double portrait by Hogarth. Garrick is the subject of the greatest of all theatrical portraits, Hogarth’s David Garrick as Richard III. Indeed, it was Hogarth who first developed this popular British genre, showing portraits of actors in character, capturing an individual and a dramatic role at the same time in a single defining moment.

Hogarth had a profound understanding of the theatre, which is reflected in the way that incidents in his Progresses often turn upon dramatic irony, when the viewer becomes aware of something of which the protagonists are not. Hogarth brought this same device into play in his portraits. In The Graham Children, for instance, a little boy plays his serinette, imagining that the caged bullfinch above him is excited by it. ‘He’s behind you!’ we want to shout, as we realise that the reason for the bird’s excited state is a brilliantly characterised cat, crouching above and behind the boy’s head, which both the bird and we can see but the boy cannot.

In works such as this, as in almost all his portraits, Hogarth pulled out every stop, painting with a wonderful touch and dash, while always allowing his sense of humour to break through. In his full-length Captain Thomas Coram, Hogarth adapted the trappings of grand French portraiture to the image of a diminutive merchant sea captain whose concern for abandoned children had led to the establishment of the Foundling Hospital. Hogarth shows Coram without a wig, his straggly hair on display, in an English greatcoat on an English chair beside an English tripod table, with a fine disregard for the rules of deportment that were considered indispensable in polite society, let alone in a public portrait on the grand scale. It is only after some time that we realise that Coram’s short legs barely reach the ground and that one foot is dangling in mid-air.

Yet this perversely composed picture succeeds in raising the little captain to a figure of great presence. Hogarth’s contemporaries knew that they were witnessing something rare and special in such paintings and for several customers he developed a kind of satirical portrait as a particular speciality. Among them is what is now coyly entitled Francis Matthew Schutz of Gillingham in his Bed, which actually shows Schutz being sick into a chamber pot. This portrait of her desperately hung-over husband was probably commissioned by Schutz’s long-suffering wife, although more decorous descendants overpainted the vomit, turning it into a ‘paper’ (it has now been restored to its original condition).

More scandalous still is Sir Francis Dashwood at his Devotions. The sitter, dressed up as St Francis, was the leader of a hellfire club, the Order of the Friars of St Francis of Wycombe, whose members dressed in religious habits for orgies. The image is a parody of a saint at his devotions, but the very term ‘to be at your devotions’ was contemporary slang for having sex. Among the props is a wooden cross on which Christ has been supplanted by an orgasmic female nude, while the still life nearby includes female buttocks and male genitals in the guise of some innocent-looking fruit.

As these details suggest, Hogarth’s compositions invite endless examination and interpretation, and have done so ever since the earliest commentaries: the best of them all was published in German by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg in the 1790s. It might be thought there was little left to discover, yet even when it comes to the well-known Progresses and satires Einberg provides countless new facts and insights. When she takes on less familiar paintings – Hogarth’s portraits and history paintings – we encounter a treasure trove. Many of these works have never been properly studied and Einberg offers up a mass of new interpretations, identifications of sitters, hidden connections and meanings, as well as a good number of newly discovered pictures. The design and production are superb and the book is endlessly fascinating, a monumental account of a great painter by an outstanding art historian.


Follow Literary Review on Twitter