One of Tate Britain’s big shows this winter, Hogarth and Europe looks at the ever popular eighteenth century artist in the context of the changing society of the time and the similarities with artists across Europe. I went to take a look last week.
This isn’t a small show and it includes ceramics as well as prints and paintings. It includes the well known standalone paintings, like The March to Finchley and The Gate of Calais ( aka O The Roast Beef of Old England ) as well as the series paintings (and prints) so there’s A Harlot’s Progress, A Rake’s Progress and Marriage a la Mode. There is the famous 1745 self-portrait of Hogarth himself, with Pug, and a selection, less widely seen, of his portrait paintings which would have been what brought in the money during his lifetime, like that of the Cholmondely family, right. There wasn’t a lot of his work which I hadn’t seen before, although the portraits of his two sisters were striking, the family resemblance between then and with their brother very evident. That said, there is always more to be found in his very full frames and this exhibition draws attention to particular aspects not focused on before.
The eighteenth century was a time of huge change. Peace and stability in Europe brought economic prosperity, expanding trade with other parts of the world and significant scientific and social innovation. Cities were growing exponentially and, while there were massive disparities between the lives of the rich and the poor, there was also opportunity. Artists no longer depended on their traditional sponsors, church, state and aristocracy, but painted for the new, rising middle class ( something Simon Shama’s Embarrassment of Riches documented so enjoyably in regard to Holland ). Hogarth was one of them and he campaigned vigorously for the Engravers Copyright Act of 1735, otherwise known as ‘Hogarth’s Act’, which gave artists the rights to their own work.
The exhibition prompts you to look at the familiar scenes with a social historian’s eye, picking out that fine, oriental china cluttering the Squanderfield’s mantlepiece, noticing the French furnishings, the French and Dutch old masters on the wall in The Marriage Settlement, the exotics – the black slaves, the Italian castrato singer, the French dancing master – in later Marriage paintings. Whilst seeing his black characters, usually unfree, I hadn’t noticed before the way that Hogarth often positions them (not just household slaves, but in street scenes too) as a counter to white immorality.
I confess that I’ve always found Hogarth’s social commentary ‘satire’ somewhat heavy handed and unfunny, though chock-full of detail, but I acknowledge its originality and influence. He was very famous during his lifetime mainly because so many of his ‘morality’ works were turned into prints (he studied, originally as an engraver). He has also been a major influence on later artists and the word ‘Hogarthian’ has come to represent many a teeming, rambunctious and satiric scene. This exhibition shows that, while his European contemporaries were painting scenes of the city, like him, they were far less assured in their social commentary and much less irreverent and satirical. Some, like Canaletto, were content to capture (very beautifully, it must be said) what was before them.
I appreciated the charitable work he did, with other artists and musicians, notably Handel, in supporting the Foundlings Hospital but I hadn’t understood that his preoccupation with the materialism and moral decline of ‘modern’ society was also fueled by his own history. His father got into debt and was imprisoned for a time, leaving the young Hogarth and his mother to provide for the family. The Madhouse final scene from Rake was only a metaphorical step away from the debtor’s prison where Hogarth senior had been incarcerated.
So, an exhibition worth going to if you want to learn more about William Hogarth and a chance to see him in a European context. It runs until 20th March 2022 and costs £18 to enter (full price).