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Thursday, September 27, 2012

William Hogarth

Self-portrait at the Easel, ca. 1757, William Hogarth
Several years ago, in the movie, Primary Colors (and in others since), we have had thinly disguised bits of social commentary centered upon recent all-consuming bids to obtain political office. Were such works of art to have been created in the 1700s, they would, of course, have been done in the form of paintings. Moreover, the "producer" of such works would have undoubtedly been William Hogarth. Born in England in 1697, Hogarth was primarily an engraver, specializing in prints satirizing current events or social mores. Such works were immensely popular, and more than that, quite profitable. Shrewd, witty, and somewhat straight-laced, his work quickly attracted the attention of the evolving middle-classes while needling the upper classes, which the often lampooned. Nonetheless, even the wealthy seem to have bought them and must have secretly enjoyed them in spite of the fact they may have struck close to home.

The Harlot's Progress, 1731, William Hogarth,
Moll Hackabout arrives in London.
Hogarth however, aspired to more. He wanted to be a painter. About 1731, he moved up from prints to a series of paintings through which he told moralizing tales he made up himself, illustrated in oils, usually four to the set, something like a play in four acts. One, for instance, The Harlot's Progress (left), depicts the story of a young farm girl lured into prostitution. Color prints were sold based upon the paintings (which were destroyed in a fire). The first set was so successful, he flipped the coin over and followed it with The Rake's Progress (below right), a tale told of similar, male debauchery. Though he worked hard to establish himself as a painter, and showed considerably ability, the more expensive color prints did not sell as well as those he'd done before so he gave up his dream and never painted again after 1745.

The Rake's Progress, 1734. William Hogarth,
Tom Rakewell, squaders his inheitance in
riotous living.
Hogarth was successful however in leaving us a number of sharp insights into what it must have been like to live among the moneyed classes in the eighteenth century. In 1743, Hogarth began his last, and perhaps his best series, a group of four paintings. The series was called Marriage a la Mode. The opening painting, titled The Marriage Contract (bottom), depicts a wealthy merchant about to sign papers committing his attractive, teenage daughter in marriage to a penniless nobleman. The scene is a riot of subtle comedy and satire complete with lawyers, accountants, and even an architect peering out a window at the young nobleman's new house under construction, paid for no doubt by the wealthy merchant as part of his daughter's dowry. One look at the indolent, spindly-legged, playboy viscount she is to marry, admiring himself in a mirror, and we know the arranged union is in trouble before they even speak the vows. Obviously, striving to tell elaborate stories in paint, Hogarth must have found the limitations of his chosen medium quite frustrating. Perhaps he was simply born in the wrong century. He would have felt right at home in Hollywood.
Marriage Ala Mode,  1743, William Hogarth, The Marriage Contract.

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