Art and Archaeology Exhibitions
You are in:  Home > Art > Exhibitions   •  Archives   •  send page to a friend

Headline Feed
Email to a friend




By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 6 December 2006 —The exhibition of the works of William Hogarth, the British painter, at the Louvre Museum is absolutely magnificent. It is also the first retrospective in France of this artist who was one of the major figures of the English Enlightenment. His paintings, witty and full of an earthy realism, are a social commentary on the morals of the time as well as being works of art in their own right.

In his lifetime, he was never considered a "fashionable" painter with the stature of a Holbein or a Van Dyck, for he brushed aside the great mythological, religious and historical themes, preferring subjects drawn from quick and often malicious observations of his contemporaries. Moreover, to ensure that his art reached the greatest number of people possible, and to "educate their taste", he had his works reproduced as engravings which made him the prime sponsor of the first statute extending copyright to graphic artists which became law in 1735. It also brought him a certain notoriety in Europe.

William Hogarth: Gin Lane, 1751
© British Museum
Photo courtesy of the Musée du Louvre

But although he sold many prints in his lifetime, peoples' interest lay in the details and amusing incidents found in his works rather than in their beauty. Everything is blatantly obvious as, for example, the satirical allusions in The Rake's Progress, and for some time after his death, he was regarded as a moralist and sardonic observer rather than a painter; his artistic sense was initially overlooked. All the symbolism in his paintings put together in any other way, by a lesser artist, could have become meaningless; Hogarth tells a story in lines and colours.

He was born in London in 1697 and apparently spent much of his childhood in prison where his father was flung for debt. As was the custom of the times, the entire family was obliged to accompany him!  Hogarth could not exactly have an easy time of it if one has read Dickens'  horrific descriptions of incarceration, a century and a half later….

However, after first being apprenticed to a silver-plate engraver, Hogarth subsequently studied painting under Sir James Thornhill, virulently criticised the latter's teaching, and then eloped with his daughter. After which he made a comfortable living as a painter.

He was, however, no handsome Don Juan, as can be seen in one of the self portraits which open this remarkable exhibition. In The Painter and his Pug, completed in 1745, the artist, small of stature, is posed quite naturally in an oval frame, and guarded by his favourite dog, Trump. The animal, a gruff, heartily down- to- earth creature, sits in the foreground opposite the artist's palette with the Line of Beauty  and his paintbrushes  alongside volumes of Shakespeare, Swift, and Milton, England's three greatest writers. Hogarth was well steeped in English literature. 

William Hogarth: The Painter and his Pug, 1745
Oil on canvas
© Tate Gallery
Photo courtesy of the Musée du Louvre

Nearby hangs a pair of canvases representing a couple's struggles before and after love-making, Before, where the humour hangs on the dubious taste of suspense,  and After, where the girl's dishevelled appearance brings the story to an abrupt end.

William Hogarth: After, 1731
Oil on canvas
© The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge 

Photo courtesy of the Musée du Louvre

Four Times of the Day, composed of four paintings which illustrate his talent as an urban chronicler, demonstrates his fascination with the city of London, rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666.  They represent four scenes in four different districts of London; Morning shows Covent Garden in winter, with a disorderly gang leaving Tom King's Coffee House. In the second painting, possibly the best, the faithful are coming out of the French Chapel in Hog Lane (later Crown Street) at St. Giles in the Fields, at midday, while in the third, a prosperous businessman and his wife are returning from an evening at Sadler's Wells theatre on a sticky summer evening. The last work of the series portrays the neighbourhood of Charing Cross in Islington at night on the anniversary of Restoration day. All four are filled with a multitude of details. Hogarth loved the mix of classes and enjoyed portraying the desolation of the young boy who dropped and broke his pie, the patience of the dye-maker and his wife, as well as the drunk freemason.

However, the most famous of his series of paintings which tells a story is The Rake's Progress which recounts the misfortunes of a young heir bankrupted by gambling and women, and who finishes up in the asylum. Similarly, A Harlot's Progress tells of how an inexperienced girl becomes a prostitute. Both are novels without words, where Hogarth invites us to find our own way through the work, linking one scene to another.

William Hogarth: A Rake's Progress: The Madhouse, 1735
Oil on canvas
© John Soane's Museum, London
Photo courtesy of the Musée du Louvre

The moral of these stories is as patently obvious as it is in Industry and Idleness, where the artist strongly expresses his concern for young people, placing his art in the service of man. He has tried to educate the youth of his day by painting the story of two poor apprentices in a cloth weaving workshop. It begins with honest Goodchild working away while Idle sleeps. Their lives then diverge as one rises while the other falls. The last painting shows Goodchild being proclaimed Lord Mayor of London while his former workmate is being hanged for heinous crimes.

He received a number of commissions for family portraits of the English gentry in their homes or gardens and inaugurated what became known as "conversation pieces" in England. The sitters, usually well-dressed and self-satisfied, are engaged in polite activities such as taking tea together, playing music, chatting pleasantly or simply admiring paintings as in the "Strode family".  Hogarth's brushstrokes, with their exquisite touch conveyed vitality, benevolence, and an almost popular simplicity. But in casting aside social rules and artistic conventions, his impetuous nature got him into trouble more often than once. With his uncommon freedom and frankness, he once painted a man who was handicapped, handicap and all, and the sitter who had expected to be flattered refused to pay. But when the artist threatened to add a tail and other "ingenious little appendages" to the work before exhibiting it publicly, he paid double quick. Alas for posterity, the painting was destroyed.

All of the portraits show his enquiring mind and the visitor can see both the surprisingly pompous Captain Coram, which the painter considered the best of his portraits and the one he completed with the greatest of pleasure, and The Shrimp Lady, a work which demonstrates his exceptional sensitivity, and which he refused to part with during his lifetime.

Heads of Six of Hogarth's Servants is a work which was the total opposite to the official portraits of the day made fashionable by such painters as Joshua Reynolds. It's difficult to imagine anything more sincere, more correct. You can see what these people are like at first glance, for obedience, passivity and acceptance are immediately obvious in their bearing. Only the expression in their eyes, that of servants is similar. However, the woman on the right is different. She's cheeky. Was she her master's lover? She looks more independent than the others. Completed in 1750, this was a subject rarely dealt with before.

William Hogarth: Heads of Six of Hogarth's Servants
Oil on canvas circa 1750-5
© Tate Gallery
Photo courtesy of the Musée du Louvre

Six Heads and the six paintings of  A Fashionable Marriage depicting the tale of a loveless marriage arranged by the parents of a penniless young lord to a wealthy young heiress, show William Hogarth at the peak of his art. They are exquisitely painted. What interested him was the personality of his subject, the mood they were in and the way they moved.  Perfecting the way the light touched a silken skirt was of secondary importance.

However, the painting which caused the most amusement at the exhibition was the ferociously hilarious The Gate of Calais . One day, so the story goes, Hogarth was discovered sketching the drawbridge of the French port of Calais and was arrested as a spy. Outraged, upon his release and return to England, the artist produced the virulently anti-French painting based on his experience there. The drawbridge itself resembles a set of vicious teeth, while the skinny French cook staggering under the enormous side of beef under the greedy eye of the fat French monk with the starved soldier behind form a trio bursting with life. The design is superb. 

William Hogarth: O the Roast Beef of Old England (`The Gate of Calais')  1748
Oil on canvas
© Tate Gallery
Photo courtesy of the Musée du Louvre

A politically committed artist, Hogarth a man full of sound common sense, elevated English painting to new heights. His depictions of everyday life paved the way to an English school of painting which had hitherto just not existed. Self-taught and with no pupils, he became one of the most important English painters of the eighteenth century. Who was there before him? Henry Fielding, of Tom Jones fame, a close friend and one of his greatest admirers  considered him, "the most useful satirist who ever lived", commenting that the painter exposed all the illusions of the time with humour.

Each person in his work has a past and future as well as a present, and what we see is a moment in their lives. What we also see is a collection of simply stunning artworks.

William Hogarth 1697 - 1764
Through 8 January 2007
Musée du Louvre
75001 Paris
Tel:  (33) 1 40 20 53 17

After Paris, Hogarth will be on view at Tate Britain  in London from 7 February to 29 April 2007 and then at the Caixa Forum in Madrid from 21 May to 26 August 2007.  

Patricia Boccadoro is a senior editor at

[ Feedback | Home ]

If you value this page, please send it to a friend.

Copyright © 2005 Euromedia Group, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.