In 1731, William Hogarth started work on a series of six paintings that he hoped would be of “public utility”. He had, he thought, “found an intermediate species of subjects for painting between the sublime and the grotesque”. A Harlot’s Progress was the first outing for this new genre of “modern moral subjects”.
The pictures tell the tale of Moll Hackabout, a country girl fresh to London who is inveigled into becoming the mistress of a rich merchant – the first misstep on a rapid descent into prostitution, imprisonment and death from syphilis. Full of comic as well as tragic detail, the pictures were an instant success. Prints after the paintings were advertised at one guinea a set and, noted the diarist George Vertue in astonished tones, “before a twelve month came about” Hogarth, who engraved and sold the prints himself, already had between “fourteen or fifteen hundred” subscribers.
What appealed to them so strongly was the way Hogarth (1697-1764) had taken recognisable contemporary social mores and given them a comic-strip narrative. As the writer Jonathan Swift wrote, here was satire “which instead of lashing, laughs men out of their follies and vices”. Demand proved insatiable, abroad as well as at home: a French visitor wrote that “I have not seen a house of note without these moral prints”.
Hogarth’s modern moral subjects feature large in Tate Britain’s Hogarth and Europe exhibition, in which some 60 of his pictures hang alongside those of continental contemporaries who also treated themes of the less edifying side of city life. Although there is nothing new in the idea of Hogarth as a key component of the cross-cultural exchange of the time, the perception of Hogarth as a bluff John Bull nationalist with a hearty loathing of Johnny Foreigner has proved hard to uproot. The last major exhibition of his work was in 2007. Other times.
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This exhibition does not pitch Hogarth as a fully fledged European – he could take dyspeptic aim at such fripperies as French fashions and Italian opera – but rather as an artist who was influenced by painters on the other side of the Channel and who influenced them in turn. Although he travelled to Paris twice, in 1743 and 1748, he didn’t need to go that far to encounter foreign artists. Among the painters who at some point worked within a few hundred yards of him in London were Johann Zoffany, Canaletto, Jean-Étienne Liotard, Marco Ricci, the engraver Gravelot and the sculptor Louis-François Roubiliac. Meanwhile, there were painters such as the Netherlander Cornelis Troost and the Italian Giuseppe Crespi who pioneered their own independent Hogarthian styles, showing modern low life with a comic twist.
This is a fascinating and timely theme that brings with it a plethora of meaty ideas about the burgeoning of bourgeois culture, global trade and the ready availability of luxury goods. It also explores the freeing of artists from aristocratic and clerical patronage, increased urbanisation and the gap between rich and poor. However, it is clear that the curators don’t trust their visitors with simple scholarship or to be able to draw their own parallels between the mid-18th century and today, or indeed to understand that societal frameworks change over time. Instead, they have imposed their own modern moral subjects on paintings that are more than 250 years old.
To do so, they have invited a selection of artists and academics – including race and gender specialists – to provide a supplementary layer of commentary on the works. Dotted throughout the exhibition are wall labels revealing their insights as to what they believe is really going on in the works – whether Hogarth and his contemporaries realised it or not. Many of them think that the sub-subtext of the paintings is their primary purpose, hence the exhibition co-opts the paintings into an indictment of slavery, colonial exploitation, racism, sexual violence and general moral fecklessness (in fact, Hogarth’s greatest bugbear was cruelty to animals, not people).
This signage starts as distracting but quickly becomes insufferable. The presence of a mahogany chair in one painting apparently shows Hogarth’s awareness not just of globalisation but of the slave labour needed to fell the trees in the Caribbean and South America – ditto the tea, tobacco and sugar his London revellers consume; a black child being chucked under the chin by a harridan is not being likened to a pet but is a victim of her “sexual depravity”; while the presence of Asian porcelain on the mantelpiece behind the ill-fated couple exhausted by their night-time dalliances in his Marriage A-La-Mode series is enough to damn the scene as “a picture of white degeneracy”.
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Presumably the decision to include these non-aperçus – which range from the crass to the asinine – and give them the Tate imprimatur was taken by a committee. There is nothing wrong with a didactic exhibition but here the stated theme is undermined by shallow and ahistorical editorialising based on the fear of being criticised for failing to highlight that Hogarth and his peers were hardly citizens of Utopia.
When allowed to return to the European context there are some fascinating pictures on the walls. A set of Parisian street scenes painted by Etienne Jeaurat in 1743 and the scenes of dalliance portrayed in The Four Times of Day (1739-41) by Nicolas Lancret show that painting in series was under way in France too, albeit without the bawdy humour Hogarth brought to his “progresses”. That is there though, in spades, in Cornelis Troost’s Misled (circa 1739-50), in which onlookers gather in the street and stare in amusement or shock at the bare bottom of a man with a face painted on it that protrudes from an upstairs window. There are also two variations (hung in different rooms) by Crespi of a woman in a disordered bedroom searching under her shift for a flea: they owe a debt to Rembrandt’s 1654 painting of his lover Hendrickje Stoffels bathing in her undergarments and reveal how an old master could be co-opted for a gamey, demotic topic.
Among the less familiar Hogarths is a wonderful comedic-salutary piece, Francis Matthew Schutz in His Bed (1755-60), showing the unfortunate man vomiting into a chamber pot. The picture was commissioned by Schutz’s wife Susan to awaken him to his habitual “vice of intemperance… under the hope of reforming him”: his family later had a book substituted for the puke and pot but Schutz himself, as with many of the other real people in Hogarth’s work, was happy to take a joke (and an admonition) at his own expense.
Also present is Hogarth’s large and beguilingly informal, if ineffably glamorous, portrait of Miss Mary Edwards (1742) based on French portraits by the likes of Jean-Marc Nattier and Jacques-André-Joseph Aved, whom he had met in Paris. Edwards was a true example of female agency: she was the richest woman in England, who married clandestinely but refused to change her name and later repudiated the marriage to stop her husband spending her fortune. This picture – evidence that Hogarth could transcend the rough and tumble – and many of the others that illustrate the pan-Europeanism of the time, are reason enough to visit the exhibition. Just don’t read the wall labels.
Hogarth and Europe
Tate Britain, London, SW1
until 20 March 2022
This article appears in the 03 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britannia Chained