William Hogarth (1697-1764)
Beginning of the 18th Century
THE ENGLISH SCHOOL
The significance of the great English engraver and painter William Hogarth requires a little introduction on the state of English art at the start of the 18th century.
The death of Sir Godfrey Kneller in 1723 brought to an end the long dynasty of foreign artists which had dominated English painting for two hundred years, but no sign was yet to be seen of that revival which has made the eighteenth century so glorious a chapter in the history of English art.
Kneller's pupils and followers were conventional 'portrait manufacturers', whose work had neither life nor charm. He was succeeded as serjeant-painter to the king by Charles Jervas (1675-1739), a typical member of his school, memorable more for his conceit and for his friendship with Pope, whose polite verses to Jervas do more credit to his friendship than to his critical judgment. Jervas, however, was not the best of the painters of Kneller's school. Michael Dahl (1656-1743) and Jonathan Richardson (1665-1745), though little more than imitators, were painters of a somewhat higher order, and Sir James Thornhill (1676-1734) made a gallant, if not very successful, effort to raise English figurative painting out of the ruck into which it had fallen.
Romantic expressionist painter
William Blake (1757-1827)
Watercolourist, Illustrator, Engraver
Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830)
John Constable (1776-1837)
Naturalist landscape painter
JMW Turner (1775-1851)
Impressionistic landscape art
Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
First major watercolourist.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82)
Romantic leader of Pre-Raphaelites
Alfred Stevens (1817-75)
Sculpture, decorative art
GF Watts (1817-1904)
Portrait painter, muralist
John Everett Millais (1829-96)
William Morris (1834-96)
Leader of Arts & Crafts Movement
Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98)
Art Nouveau illustrator.
But it was left to his pupil and son-in-law, William Hogarth, to restore English fine art painting to dignity and honour. It is useless to try to account for the sudden appearance of genius at a given time and place, and that Hogarth, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Wilson, Turner, Constable, and a score of other great artists appeared in England within a hundred years can only be accepted as a fact. But conditions were changing, and the circumstances of the eighteenth century were far more favourable to the growth of a national school than those of the sixteenth and seventeenth.
Widening of English
WORLDS TOP ARTISTS
Patronage, which had been confined mainly
to the Court and aristocracy, was extended to a wealthy upper and upper-middle
class, whose taste was enriched by travel. The "Grand
Tour" of France, Italy, and Germany became part of the general
education of a young man of moderate means, and a knowledge of the works
of the old masters became disseminated
among a much wider class in England. The long years of Walpole's administration
were a period of rest and recuperation, during which the English people
acquired solidity and a growing sense of unity and patriotism which had
not yet degenerated into the extreme insularity of later times. National
pride was quickened by the artistic glories of other countries, and a
desire for a national school was awakened. The works of Claude, Poussin,
and the Dutch
realist masters aroused a taste for landscape, which opened a way
for the English landscape-painters, whose work in the early nineteenth
century was to transform the face of European art.
All these factors combined to raise the
general level of the arts, although some of them ultimately had evil as
well as good effects.
That Thornhill had real gifts is proved by the sketch for a decoration, "A miracle of St. Francis", in the National Gallery, in which the flashing rectangles of the design actually recall the art of Tintoretto. But before English painting could make a fresh start it was necessary to get back to something simpler and more sincere. The work of Rubens and the later Italian painters was the final result of a long process in which their elaborate and cultivated art had slowly developed from simpler forms based on a sincere study of nature. To imitate their results without the solid basis on which they were built, was merely to produce artificial flowers without life and without seed. It was because the art of Hogarth had roots deeply stuck in the life of his own time and his own people that he was able to restore health and vigour to the sickly stem of English painting.
Early Life, His Approach to Art
This was surely the right way for him to
begin. His artistic language grew out of his thoughts, and he drew because
he had something to say instead of learning an elaborate and artificial
style which corresponded to no realities in his own mind. This is the
only way in which a living art can be produced, for just as in speech
the words must accurately fit the thought, so in the visual arts the form
must be the appropriate clothing to an image in the mind. Here lies the
difficulty in learning from foreign schools. Style is only vital and expressive
when it is exactly informed by the indwelling spirit, and the artistic
language which has been evolved from the customs, traditions, and habits
of thought of one people cannot be made to fit those of another. In Hogarth's
day, despite a vibrant English language, there was no equivalent system
of symbolism ready for his use in the practice of painting, so he was
forced to create one for himself.
In the same year Sir James Thornhill's
Academy at Covent Garden was opened, and Hogarth attended it to learn
the craft of oil-painting, and in the
course of a few years he had begun to establish himself as a painter.
His plates to Butler's Hudibras in 1726 had already brought him some professional
reputation as an engraver. His earliest paintings were small portrait
groups or "conversation pieces", as they were called,
and from them he proceeded to the various series of satirical moralities
with which his name is mainly associated. The first of these, "The
Harlot's Progress", was painted in 1731.
Hogarth contrived to the end of his life to produce satirical engravings and paintings, but he also painted a fairly large number of portraits, and a few pictures in the "grand historical style", which are not on a level with his other work. Late in life he published his "Analysis of Beauty", in which he expressed his own aesthetic ideals, and endeavoured to establish a definite canon of taste. In 1757 he received some official recognition in his appointment as serjeant-painter to the king, but he died on 26th October 1764, four years too early to become one of the foundation members of the Royal Academy.
Technically his painting was in the Kneller tradition, and this was a sound one of fluent direct paint, but certain almost calligraphic passages of very liquid paint suggest that on the technical side only he may have owed something to Canaletto, who came to England in 1745. The work of Canaletto was known in England before that, and it is at least possible that Hogarth may have studied it. That Hogarth knew the work of "Old Brueghel" is highly improbable, but there is a clear affinity between them. The connecting link, no doubt, is to be found in the Dutch and Flemish low-life painters of the seventeenth century, some of whose work Hogarth would have known. This is a case of a living tradition, which having begun with Brueghel, blossomed again when it came to the hand of another great artist. Hogarth's range was, of course, far more restricted than Brueghel's, and there is nothing in his art to compare with the great landscapes at the close of Brueghel's life, but as a satirist, Hogarth had a more subtle and penetrating wit, and his work is informed by a kind of moral indignation which had no part in the peasant buffooneries of Brueghel. What they have in common is the direct reaction of a strong and humorous spirit to the foibles and grotesqueness of life as they saw it, and the ability to give a formal significance to their comments which redeems them from being simply painted jokes.
Style and Composition
The way in which Hogarth deals with these limitations and creates from them positive virtues is what gives these literary pictures their aesthetic significance. In overcoming the limitations which immobility and lack of speech impose upon his figures as actors, he was forced to the invention of witty gestures and poses which in life would be over-emphatic, but which in the make-believe world of his pictures are entirely natural and appropriate. Just as on the stage itself pure realism is flat and ineffective, and conventions are necessary to convey the illusion of reality, so Hogarth creates his illusion while constantly violating the canons of strict realism. When we examine his pictures inch by inch we find that they are full of clues to the story, and that they can be read as well as looked at. If he had only been able to convey his meaning in this way his pictures might rightly be dismissed as merely literary art, but, as it is, the very shapes and colours themselves are informed by a wit and satire which mould them to a formal arabesque.
Behind all this creative ingenuity there lies a very simple and manly morality which is its mainspring. In an age of lewdness, chicanery, and corruption Hogarth stands for the simple virtues of honesty, sobriety, and decent love, and it is this simplicity of sentiment which has given his pictures the wide popular appeal of old-fashioned melodrama, of Dickens, or of Shakespeare. Vice and virtue are clear cut in his pictures, and he has the same relish and gusto for a good villain that has marked the great popular artists of all time. He enjoys his villains with the zest of Shakespeare in Iago, or the medieval artists in their devils. In his portraits these traits find less scope as a rule, but in one of them, "Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat", Hogarth created the finest rogue in all his gallery of scoundrels. This picture stands between his moralities and the rest of his portraits, and is one of his masterpieces. Lord Lovat was under sentence of death when Hogarth painted his portrait, and one may believe that Hogarth did not feel hampered by the restrictions which usually beset the portrait-painter. In the result it contains most of the virtues of the portraits and the moralities. Not overburdened with literary matter it has as much malice and satire as the "Marriage a la Mode", and is as penetrating a piece of character-reading as the portraits of his own servants. Certainly it was a subject to inspire a painter of Hogarth's gifts. The great Johnsonian mass of Lovat's body supports a head which is genial villainy incarnate. No trace of repentance or regret is to be seen in the eyes of the wily old lawyer who is facing death staunch in his villainies, and glorying in them to the last.
Hogarth did not find such a subject as
this again, but all his portraits, even the most formal and official,
have an acute sense of character, and are direct and manly presentations
devoid of affectation or pretence. The group of portrait heads of his
own servants is the most sympathetic of all. As in the portrait of Simon
Fraser, Hogarth obviously felt quite free from all restraint in painting
these, and they have an intimacy and tenderness rather rare in his work,
but whioh peeps out occasionally even in the satires. Here the various
characters are most subtly differentiated, and it is possible to read
from the picture very clearly the relationship between Hogarth and his
various servants. There is no more human and revealing picture in existence.
Hogarth had no immediate followers, and though his direct influence on English art was slight, indirectly it was incalculable.
Directly, caricaturists such as Rowlandson, Gillray, and Cruikshank owe something to him, and the didactic tendency of much subsequent English painting may perhaps be traced to him, but his real importance lay in bringing English painting into touch with life and ridding it of stale conventions. The connoisseurs of his own day considered him rather a vulgar painter, as did Reynolds, but the vitality of his work none could deny. He swept away the stale atmosphere of decay like a great wind, and left behind a fresh air in which a new art could grow up. He made art popular by dealing with a life which the people knew in a spirit which they could understand, and by his engravings he brought his art to classes who knew little of pictures. So, though the subsequent developments of painting in the eighteenth century do not follow directly from Hogarth, he made them possible, and he is rightly considered the founder of the modern English school of painting.
Of Hogarth's immediate contemporaries none
show a vitality in any way comparable to his. A decent technical competence
and some occasional charm of colour is all that can be granted them. Joseph
Highmore (1692-1780) and Thomas Hudson (1701-79), the master of Reynolds,
are typical. Both could paint very well so far as the actual handling
of brushes and pigment goes, but they brought little life to their work.
Highmore certainly had some charm and a moderate sense of character which
is well illustrated by his portrait of "A Gentleman in murrey-brown
velvet" (National Gallery). But a comparison of his illustrations
to Pamela with Hogarth's works, which hang near them in Trafalgar Square,
shows how poor and thin was his inspiration in spite of a certain gracefulness.
Allan Ramsay (1713-84), the Scottish portrait-painter, may be ranked with
Highmore, to whose work his portraits have some affinity.
Works by Hogarth can be seen in the best art museums in Britain.