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William Hogarth


Hogarth, William: English painter and engraver. He was one of the leading British artists of the first half of the 18th century. He was trained as an engraver and by 1720 had established his own business printing billheads, book illustrations and funeral tickets. In his spare time he learnt to paint, firstly at St. Martin's Lane Academy and then under Sir James Thornhill, whose daughter he married in 1729. He made a name for himself with small family groups (e.g. The Wollaston Family, 1730, H.C. Wollaston's Trustees) and conversation pieces (e.g. The Beggar's Opera, one of several versions, c1729, London, Tate Gallery). Around this time he also set himself up as a portrait painter. Shortly afterwards, in c1731, he executed his first series of modern morality paintings, a totally new concept intended for wider dissemination through engraving. A Harlot's Progress (six scenes, destroyed by fire) was followed by A Rake's Progress (c1735, eight scenes, London, Sir John Soane's Museum) and Marriage a la Mode (c1743, six scenes, London, National Gallery). So popular were the engravings of the first series that they were soon pirated, and Hogarth's subsequent campaign against the pirates led to the Copyright Act of 1735. Unfortunately, as well as the engravings sold, he always had difficulty selling the original paintings. Hogarth compared his sequential paintings to theatrical performances, and thus in each series, minor vices and social affectations are incidentally satirized as the main theme - the punishment of a major vice - takes centre stage.

Also the butt of his satire was the prevailing taste for all things French and Italian (a special concern of Hogarth's, as foreign artists were, he felt, robbing him of his livelihood). A related series is The Election (1754, four scenes, London, Sir John Soane's Museum), while an independent painting in a similar vein is O the Roast Beef of Old England (1748, London, National Gallery). This latter painting was inspired by a trip to Calais during which he was arrested as a spy when caught drawing the fortifications, an incident represented at the left of the painting. Despite his by now exacerbated xenophobia, he did attempt to show his ability in the Italian Grand Manner, although the results, e.g. Sigismunda (1759, London, Tate Gallery), are not among his most successful works and were very poorly received.

If anything, the fascinating wealth of anecdotal invention and perceptive caricature in his morality paintings tends to obscure his very considerable abilities as a painter. This ability, most evident in his fluent and vigorous brushwork, is better revealed in his sensitive portraits - although his natural pugnacity and insistence on painting what he saw as the truth precluded him from a successful career in this field. Significantly, among his most accomplished portraits are the vivacious Shrimp Girl and the affectionate Artist's Servants (both London, Tate Gallery), both uncommissioned, while his most acclaimed official portrait was of a friend, Captain Coram (1740, London, Thomas Coram Foundation).

From 1735 to 1755 he ran his own academy in St. Martin's Lane, this being generally credited as an important forerunner of the Royal Academy founded a few years after his death in 1768. Indeed, Hogarth did more than any other artist to establish a credible English school of painting. In the late 1730s he gathered a group of painters together to paint history paintings for presentation to Thomas Coram's Foundation, the exhibition of which was immensely successful. In 1753 he published The Analysis of Beauty, written from the conviction that an artist has a better understanding of the arts than do connoisseurs. An important contribution to contemporary aesthetics, it is notable for Hogarth's espousal of the 'S' line, a line of beauty supposedly inherent in all successful works of visual art. His Painter and his Pug (1745, London, Tate Gallery), a kind of visual manifesto, portrays the artist as personifying solid English common sense, as well as displaying the famous 'S' line on his palette.

- From The Bulfinch Guide to Art History

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1735 The rake's progress: the rake in Bedlam
1750 Beer Street
1750 The March to Finchley
1763 The Bruiser
1763 John Wilkes, Esq.

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