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March 20, 2007

We find Hogarth a much more disturbing artist than his contemporaries did - David Wootton explains why: Hogarth at Tate Britain

Posted by David Wootton

Tate Britain, London
7th February - 29th April 2007
Daily 10am - 5.40pm (last admission 5pm)

by Mark Hallett and Christine Riding
Pp. 240. London: Tate Publishing, 2006
Hardback, £40

Everybody loves this exhibition. The surprise - and it is a surprise - is to see the full variety of Hogarth's work. I was familiar with the prints, with the paintings at Sir John Soane's Museum (The Rake's Progress and the Election series), and with the portrait of Thomas Coram (normally at the foundling hospital), but here we have not only all the prints, not only a whole range of the paintings that were the originals for the famous series of prints (such as the paintings of Marriage a la Mode, normally in the National Gallery), but also numerous portraits and group portraits ("conversation pieces"), and a group of paintings I hadn't expected at all, classified here as "high art". Alongside them stand a judicious selection of works by contemporaries, so that Hogarth's references and his influence on others are easy to see.

The catalogue is wonderful - the essays are short, intelligent and helpful, and the descriptions of individual works are spot on. Whether you can go to the exhibition or not, you should buy or borrow the catalogue. Two test cases: there is a careful discussion of John Hervey's bi-sexuality in the account of the painting of Hervey and his male friends (though there is no hint of this in the caption to the painting in the exhibition, and even in the catalogue we are not told that Voltaire wrote a delightful love poem to Hervey); and there is a very tactful description of Sigismunda Mourning Over the Heart of Guiscardo. Hogarth intended this to be a masterpiece, but the patron who had commissioned it returned it, and when it was exhibited it provoked hostile comments. Why?

Because of:

the sense of repulsion, even of obscenity, that seems to have been generated by the sight of [Sigismunda's] delicate white finger tip touching the swollen red organ sitting so incongruously in the jewelled casket.

Hazlitt thought Hogarth was a rival to Shakespeare. Hogarth would have been delighted, for he saw himself as a playwright. In his Autobiographical Notes he wrote:

I have endeavoured to treat my subjects as a dramatic writer; my picture is my stage, and men and women my players, who by means of certain actions and gestures, are to exhibit a dumb show.
Naturally, Hogarth was drawn to painting theatrical performances - the earliest surviving painting of a scene from Shakespeare is his Falstaff Examining his Recruits (1730) and he also painted a scene from the Tempest and a portrait of Garrick as Richard III; he did two paintings of The Beggar's Opera; one of his conversation pieces shows the family and friends of the Master of the Mint gathered to watch children perform Dryden's The Indian Emperor; and one of the finest paintings here is Piquet: or Virtue in Danger (normally in Buffalo) which shows a lady gambling for her chastity at cards: it is based on a play by Colley Cibber.

This relationship between Hogarth's moral art and the theatre points to a central feature of the culture of his day. On the one hand, civilized people must learn to perform their feelings in order to make them comprehensible to others. On the other, moral sensitivity lies in responding to others’ representations of their feelings. Contemporary moralists such as Hume and Smith founded morality in sympathy, and, in Smith's case, argued that in order to have a proper moral response one had to place oneself in the position of an impartial spectator. The theatre, the novel, the engraving thus all became art forms for the cultivation of moral sensibility, a process inseparable from the cultivation of politeness. The same development took place in France - the Hogarth catalogue reproduces a pair of paintings by Greuze, but doesn't contain a reference to the fine book by Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (1980), which I strongly recommend.

This brings me to a little puzzle represented by Hogarth's Four Stages of Cruelty (1751). Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759 - but I am using the sixth edition of 1790, on the web at contains eight references to cruelty. The most important is the passage in which he discusses someone who takes delight in seeing an innocent person cruelly executed:

the sentiments of the spectator would appear altogether without cause or motive, and therefore most perfectly and completely detestable. There is no perversion of sentiment or affection which our heart would be more averse to enter into, or which it would reject with greater hatred and indignation than one of this kind...
Smith thus recognizes that it is theoretically possible for someone to take pleasure in the pain of others, but he has no vocabulary with which to discuss this condition (he has no words such as sadism or schadenfreude), and although he acknowledges the condition can and does exist, it is at the same time entirely incomprehensible,
altogether without cause or motive.
Hogarth, in a sense, is caught in a similar conceptual Bermuda triangle. The first stage of cruelty clearly shows children taking pleasure in watching the torturing of animals, but the caption says:
Cruelty disgusts the view, while Pity charms the sight.
Clearly this is intended to be true for the person looking at Hogarth's print, but it is not true for the boys he is portraying, whose sight is charmed by cruelty. Similarly, Smith has no trouble understanding jealousy, fear, and resentment, but sadism makes no sense to him at all.

Nevertheless, Fielding, who much admired Hogarth, provides a subtle analysis of cruelty in Tom Jones (1749) - book II, chapter 7 -

A short sketch of that felicity which prudent couples may extract from hatred,
and book IV, chapter 3 (the adventure of the bird):
As many of my readers, I hope, know what exquisite delight there is in conveying pleasure to a beloved object, so some few, I am afraid, may have experienced the satisfaction of tormenting one we hate.
Fielding here makes the move that neither Smith nor Hogarth is capable of making: he acknowledges that he too might take pleasure in cruelty, and that this is in some sense a normal aspect of human psychology. But he is, I think, an exception in his age.

We might extend this line of thought a step further. A number of Hogarth's series of etchings are about self-destructive behaviour - Industry and Idleness for example. The plates warn against the dreadful consequences of idleness, which leads in the end to execution at Tyburn. But what motivates the idle apprentice, who at every step brings disaster upon himself? He too, after all, has been warned of the consequences of his actions. Here too there is a sort of void in Hogarth's thinking - he knows that people act self-destructively, but he doesn't know quite why. And here too, we might think, Fielding is puzzling away at the problem in Tom Jones, for much of Tom's behaviour seems self-destructive.

I don't intend to criticize Hogarth by suggesting there are aspects of human nature that constantly slip his grasp; I do, though, mean to praise Fielding, who seems to see clearly the very aspects of human nature that eighteenth-century culture regarded as incomprehensible, inhuman, and unnatural. What would have happened, we might wonder, if Hogarth had illustrated Tom Jones? It is tempting to say of Hogarth

all human life is there.
(Henry James, 1879: or was James merely quoting the motto of the News of the World, which was founded in 1843?) But if this was the case, there would be no point in studying history. What is particularly interesting are the things that are there in the plate, but are assumed not to be in the spectator, and whose presence is, in the end, for Hogarth at least, inexplicable. He can represent cruelty and idleness, but he can't make sense of them. He can point to them, he can name them, but he can't for a moment identify with them. And this is, I suspect, crucial to understanding his enormous commercial success. When his contemporaries hung Gin Lane or Idleness or The Rake's Progress on their walls they did not think: "That is what may become of me". They thought, quite cheerfully, "thank goodness I could never be like that". We cannot share this easy confidence, and as a result we find Hogarth much more disturbing than they did. It is hard for us to remember that he was once a polite and reassuring, not an alarming and disturbing, artist.

David Wootton is Anniversary Professor of History, University of York. He is the author of Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates.

To read Christie Davies' take on the Hogarth exhibition, see: Christie Davies enjoys the erotic romps daringly portrayed by the artists of eighteenth century France and Hogarth's denunciations of them as unspeakable French filth.

To read Lilian Pizzichini's take on the Hogarth exhibition, see: Lilian Pizzichini does battle with the crowds at Tate Britain's Hogarth exhibition.

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