Review of Hogarth's Legacy, edited by Cynthia Roman
Yale University Press, 2016
This book is a very welcome contribution to the study of a great English artist. Hogarth's legacy is a strange one. For some he remains a biting satirist, the artist of Gin Lane and Beer Alley, whose graphic depiction of the horrors of addiction to cheap gin hastened its control. Others, most notably art historians, seek to widen perceptions of his influence, looking at his painted canvasses to find evidence that he really should be viewed as the first truly innovative English painter. Hogarth also contributed to the Copyright Law, which he was instrumental in framing and getting through Parliament and onto the statute book. There is his association with the Foundling Hospital and the practice of encouraging artists to display their work there, which in no small part led to the establishment of the Royal Academy. Finally, despite all this, there is the biographical detail that towards the end of his life he was largely ignored, his work dismissed as old-fashioned and irrelevant, which, in turn, led to a posthumous reputation as an artist of minor importance.
In 2007 the Tate held a major retrospective which did much to re-establish Hogarth in the forefront of English art history. However, he is still fiendishly difficult to place. Perhaps part of our difficulty with him is that his career was so multi-faceted that it is almost impossible to grasp his range. This new book contains eight separate studies of particular aspects of Hogarth's work and legacy, together with an excellent introduction, attempting —perhaps not for the first time— to provide secure evidence for the authority of Hogarth's oeuvre. It is the result of a collaborative venture between scholars and students at the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale University, itself a centre for research into eighteenth century art and culture. The articles are all clearly well-researched and authoritative, and the whole opus contributes much to our understanding of this artist within the context of his own lifetime and the subsequent interpretations and re-interpretations that have followed.
The introduction, subtitled The Complexities of Hogarth's Legacy, is a brief attempt to summarise the problems that we encounter when we delve in any depth into Hogarth's work. As the author correctly points out, his output ranged from simple etchings to detailed woodcuts, highly finished and stylised series of pictorial etchings, and large portraiture oils and history paintings. Few artists can claim such a spectrum of both subjects and media, especially in the eighteenth century, and this has fostered rival arguments that the artist was either a great pioneer of English art, busily adapting and refining new techniques of engraving to appeal to an ever-widening market, or that he was essentially a journeyman who merely utilised his talent for commercial gain. It is this dilemma which this book attempts to address, and for the most part it succeeds admirably.
One of the most overlooked aspects of Hogarth's art is his oil paintings, and in particular those which can be labelled ‘historical.’ These works have divided art historians: some regard them as poorly executed, derivative in nature compared with the innovativeness of the engravings, while others attempt to claim that Hogarth should be honoured as a trail-blazer for subsequent distinguished artists such as Reynolds. A chapter by Mark Philips, entitled Hogarth and History Painting, makes a number of fascinating statements in relation to his historical pictures.
In the first part of the eighteenth century, historical painting —that is, painting which took as its subject matter themes and settings from ancient or Biblical times— was regarded as the highest, most prestigious form of art. Within Europe, and led by the esteemed French Academy, there was a hierarchy of painting, with classical historical subjects at the top, landscapes at the bottom, and portraits positioned somewhere in between. To succeed as a painter, Hogarth needed to demonstrate that he was capable of mastering what was regarded as the highest form of art at the time. Hogarth's early career is well-documented, and is here retold by Philips: his unfinished apprenticeship as an engraver of silver, his subsequent training with Sir James Thornhill and elopement with the latter’s daughter, and his gradual rise to prominence in the English art world. However, within this trajectory the place of his historical paintings has long been misunderstood, perhaps because his later satirical paintings and their engraved versions have tended to eclipse them in popularity. What Philips does very well is to document and explain their significance for the growth of Hogarth's reputation, and his deliberate attempt to promote himself as an artist of the highest order.
In 1737, Hogarth offered to decorate the staircase of St. Bartholomew's Hospital with two scenes from the New Testament appropriate to the hospital setting, The Pool of Bethesda and The Good Samaritan, both concerned with healing acts of kindness. Hogarth offered these for nothing, a gift which was gratefully accepted and earned him a position as an elected governor of the hospital, an appointment which, in turn, increased his social standing. These works thus served multiple purposes: for Hogarth the artist, the paintings demonstrated that he could aspire to the pinnacle of his profession by working on subjects of the highest calibre; for Hogarth the man who sought to provide for his family and rise in the world, the kudos which his donation brought would, he hoped, lead to other, more profitable commissions.
However, Hogarth's treatment of these New Testament subjects did not completely conform to the academic tradition in which he sought to demonstrate his skill. In The Pool of Bethesda, in particular, the central figure of Christ is conventionally depicted as he heals the bedridden man who is unable to make his own way to the pool, but Hogarth has filled the background with figures who seem to be more contemporary with himself than with Jesus. Despite the Biblical setting, they appear to be drawn from the streets of London, as if Hogarth were deliberately showing us that not only could he master the academic tradition, he could do so in a way which also reflected modern life.
Philips leads us accurately through Hogarth's career as a painter of historical subjects until we come to the final two works, both from 1759. These pictures, The Lady's Last Stake and Sigismunda Mourning Over the Heart of Guiscardo, have long divided opinion, but what is certain is the damage that the latter painting did to his reputation towards the end of his life and posthumously. For example, The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists bluntly tells us that these paintings “are generally regarded as his weakest works,” while the Tate catalogue for the 2007 exhibition opens its brilliant discussion of Sigismunda with this statement: “This audacious and complex painting marked Hogarth's final attempt to gain universal approbation as an English history painter.”
Sigismunda was commissioned by Sir Richard Grosvenor, and not only did he agree to Hogarth's request for the enormous fee of £400, but he left the subject entirely up to the artist. The story of Sigismunda is from Boccaccio's Decameron, and it is generally believed that Hogarth chose both the subject and the fee as a result of the recent auction sale of a similarly-themed painting, supposedly by Correggio, for the same price. The narrative of the painting needs to be understood in order to make any sense of the work’s subsequent dismissal by Hogarth's patron and his contemporaries.
Sigismunda had fallen in love with one of her father's servants, and he, Prince Tancred, had ordered the man to be killed and his heart delivered to his daughter. It is this moment which Hogarth decided to paint, with Sigismunda clutching the heart in a golden casket close to her bosom. Grosvenor disliked both the painting and the fee, and an angry Hogarth released him from his agreement. Hogarth displayed the painting in 1761 in an exhibition at the Society of Artists in Spring Gardens, and the press reactions were generally good, although it is suspected that these were written by Hogarth himself and his friends. The responses of visitors to the exhibition were less enthusiastic, and within ten days Hogarth had withdrawn the painting from view.
So what is it about this work that so divides opinion? Philips makes many valid observations, and points not simply to the manner in which the work is painted, but also to the subject matter and its interpretation. One of the attractions of the historical genre was the opportunity for artists to portray violent and/or sexual themes under the guise of classical or Biblical references. However, here the theme rather backfired on Hogarth. The story ends with Sigismunda mixing the blood of her dead lover with poison and committing suicide in front of her father. She represents, then, not simply the distressed lover, but also the defiant daughter. There are no other figures in the painting to draw our eyes away from the tragic centrepiece of severed heart and love-ravaged daughter, so perhaps Hogarth's contemporaries simply found the subject too much, which partly explains why the picture remained unsold when Hogarth died in 1764.
Philips correctly states towards the end of this study that “It is a natural impulse to seek unity in an artist's work, pruning away those excesses or inconsistencies that appear to get in the way of whatever is regarded as the painter's central achievement.” With Hogarth this naturally leads us to his satirical works, whether engraved or painted. Because the historical paintings do not lend themselves as vehicles for biting contemporary satire they have been dismissed as less accomplished, while in fact works such as Sigismunda are the product of Hogarth's ambition to rank among the very best of his times, for it was only by producing work in this genre that he could rise above the role of modern life satirist.
Just below the pinnacle of history painting lay portraiture, and here Hogarth was much more successful. His portrait of Thomas Coram, for example, which still hangs in the Foundling Museum—in the former home for unwanted children— is a reminder that Hogarth could master forms other than satire. It is a sympathetic rendering of an unassuming man who transformed the care of children born to poor mothers. As in the case of St Bartholomew's, Hogarth donated the portrait to the Foundling Hospital which Coram had started, and, as previously noted, was rewarded by being made a governor. Later he encouraged artists to hang their work at the hospital, an act which in time led to the establishment of the Royal Academy.
In terms of Hogarth's legacy, the historical paintings and the portraits deserve better recognition, and Philips acknowledges this. By not discounting them for their supposed inferiority to the moral satires more commonly associated with this artist, it is possible to see them as a part of the greater whole, to claim them as significant to our understanding of this artist within the context of his own time.
Another absorbing chapter, by the editor, Cynthia Roman, entitled Copying The Sleeping Congregation: Hogarthian Innovations and the Rise of Graphic Satire is interesting for an unexpected reason. As already stated, Hogarth's reputation as a biting and innovative satirist is well established. Yet it is often forgotten just how ground-breaking much of his engraved art really was. The satire can be easily recognised and read, and admired, but some of the more obvious elements at work also need to be acknowledged, for it was not necessarily the satirical content which was radical, but the contemporary setting in which it was placed. This, in turn, led to many illicit and unapproved copies being made and caused Hogarth to be a fierce supporter of the 1735 Copyright Act, an Act which soon became known as Hogarth's Law.
Roman makes a strong case when she claims that The Sleeping Congregation, the satirical print first published in 1736, was subsequently used as a source for later prints by artists who included Rowlandson and Cruikshank. The subject occupied Hogarth for many years, and he published four versions, the final one being issued in 1762, just two years before he died. The theme of the prints is the same, although some of the details are subtly altered to emphasise the satire. A church reader is shown high in the pulpit with the church clerk seated beneath him. In the main body of the church the congregation are all asleep, heads drooped, mouths wide open. To the left of the clerk sits a young woman, also asleep, who wears a dress with a revealing neckline into which the clerk is obviously leering. Through the re-workings Hogarth remains true to the central themes of the print: he pokes fun at the pomposity of the churchmen, the congregation who sleep through their Bible lesson, and the sexual overtones between the clerk and the young woman. Hogarth opened a door which exposed and revealed the hypocrisies visible in the dynamics of the society which most could perceive around them, but few could articulate effectively. It is a legacy which lives with us still as a vibrant art-form – just look at Ralph Steadman or Banksy!
This book does not resolve the many issues of Hogarth, his legacy, or his position within the canon of English art, but it does offer some serious insights into some of the problems associated with the assessment of this most complex of artists. If there is one particular image which the book leaves behind, it is this. Hogarth's range of subjects and media, and his awareness of society and of himself as a commercial artist needing to earn a living in an unforgiving environment, all combined to turn him into the artist that he ultimately became. It will always be a source of controversy as to where he should be placed: the great innovator of English art who laid the foundation for those who came after him or simply the hard-nosed satirical caricaturist who could lay bare the faults and hypocrisies of the world around him? The truth probably lies somewhere in between.--Paul Flux
Review of David H. Solkin's Art in Britain 1660-1815
Yale University Press, 2016
In every sense, this is a monster of a book. It is large-format, with three hundred colour illustrations and a fairly hefty price. However, what it offers is a consummate survey of British art for a period in which the work produced has often been dismissed as second-rate and derivative, and which often signally fails to impress beyond the islands. Solkin’s project turns this received wisdom on its head. By linking the works of art commissioned by Charles II onwards to the prevalent social and political conditions of the times in which they were produced, he is able to clearly demonstrate that rather than being derivative, many artists drew knowledge and inspiration from their European counterparts, expanded and developed their techniques, and adapted their work to the social and cultural demands of their patrons.
The way in which we use individual dates to signify the start and finish of historical or artistic periods is always distinctly problematic. Did the Victorian age really begin in 1837 and end in 1901? Was 1660 the start of a glorious restoration of the old order or perhaps of something else entirely? Solkin is very persuasive in arguing that Charles’s restoration was far from glorious: the monarchy was in a weakened state, virtually broke and in need of cultural stimulus and support. The Interregnum’s legacy was artistic bankruptcy—hardly any significant art was produced during the period. Then, when Charles was restored to the throne, a succession of calamitous events put the monarchy under severe pressure. The Great Plague of 1665 was quickly followed by the Great Fire of London a year later, and then the disastrous Anglo-Dutch War of 1667 threatened our expanding trade routes. It is not surprising, then, to find that English artists were treading cautiously, rather than celebrating the return of the monarchy in the semi-mystical terms that characterise contemporary portraits of the French king.
However, Solkin leads us on gently to a fascinating discussion of an artwork which, I will admit with some shame, I have never heard of, let alone seen. Between 1664 and 1669 Oxford University funded the construction of the Sheldonian Theatre, including the main assembly room and lecture theatre. Oxford had been a stronghold of the Royalist cause, and when the Wren-designed building was complete one of its most impressive features was a central ceiling, unsupported by columns — a huge space of five hundred square metres. Robert Streeter, the King's sergeant painter (which meant that he was responsible for the decoration of royal coaches and barges) was commissioned and the subject was to be Truth Descending on the Arts and Sciences, an obviously appropriate subject for the university building.
What Streeter delivered, over thirty-two interrelated canvases, was a deeply impressive allegorical representation of the function and status of the university and, by extension, of the monarchy itself under which it was now able to achieve its primary goal – to educate and enlighten those who attended it. The central canvas shows Truth descending on a cloud into the space below, surrounded by a circle of figures representing the Arts and Sciences, who have driven away figures of ignorance including Envy and Brutality. In 1673 a pamphlet was published to explain the detailed iconography, as at that time few in England would have had the necessary knowledge to decipher the figures. What is truly remarkable about this work is that it looks and feels European: it has scale and grand design, it is highly decorative, and it is allegorical, all features associated with European art of the period. Yet this was an English artist, working for an English patron, on a subject specific to the function of an English building and institution.
This is the first clear example of what will become a significant theme of Solkin's review, and it is one which raises many important questions, especially when it comes to how we view English art of this period. It is perhaps an over-simplification, but nonetheless fairly accurate, to state that English art at this time has rarely been perceived to be as competent or accomplished as that produced elsewhere in Europe, notably in France and Holland. However, throughout the book Solkin produces examples which, like that of Streeter, demonstrate that artists in this country were more than capable of work which could stand alongside European competition. One of the reasons that Solkin gives for this is that artists here were responding, perhaps for the first time, to commissions from English patrons on subjects which were themselves responses to the social and political demands of the period. These artists looked towards Europe for their stylistic inspiration, and nowhere is this more obviously seen than in the realm of portraiture.
Portraits reward close study as they can reveal so much about artist and patron. The sitter may demand to be seen in a particular way, and the artist can accede to these demands, or he may subvert or even subtly oppose such instructions. The portraits of Charles II must be viewed in the context of the monarch’s need for political and social legitimisation, and Solkin's selection is both enlightening and informative on this account. He notes that Charles did not commission any official portraits in state robes, perhaps because he did not wish to promote the image of the supreme ruler, a notion which had landed his father in all sorts of trouble. Portraits were commissioned, but they either showed the king in the regalia of the Order of the Garter, or in classical dress. Solkin places two similar portraits together --James, Duke of York as Lord High Admiral and Charles II Enthroned-- as typical of the pictures that we most often associate with this period. The settings are archaic, backward-looking, designed to illuminate their subjects as symbols of power. However, at the same time other, very different portraits were also being commissioned.
Throughout the book we are introduced to works of art which would be unfamiliar to the general reader. They are not only of interest in themselves, but they also support the general argument of this study: namely that English artists of this period were not necessarily derivative of their European counterparts, but added their own character to their works. Many examples are provided, but one may serve as a representative of the rest — the painting by George Romney, Emma Hart in a Cavern.
The single individual female portrait had been a popular genre since the Renaissance, and therefore Romney was connecting with a very early European tradition. The portrait sits within the so-called ‘fancy’ niche, an illusive term which seeks to describe portraits of this period which are not simply representations of particular individuals, but are more allegorical in their intent. The painting contains an unintentional irony in that, in this particular case, the allegory depicts a young woman wistfully seated before an opening in the rock from which can be seen a disappearing ship. Emma Hart later became Lady Hamilton, the lover of Lord Nelson. After his death she was abandoned, and died penniless in France.
The pose that Romney chose for Emma has, Solkin suggests, a resonance with earlier works portraying a penitent Mary Magdalene, and this is entirely consistent with the themes at play here. The subject is clearly supposed to be in a thoughtful pose, the distant image of the ship clearly representing something or somebody who is potentially lost, probably temporarily, but perhaps forever. The girl is dressed in white, her hands held together in a virginal image which also hints at male desire, both of which would have been easily recognised by Romney's contemporaries. This combination of classical references and modern imagery reflects the way in which late eighteenth century artists were able to successfully mix the old and the new to create an authentic response to contemporary European art.
This book is an expertly written review of a most difficult subject. The author’s expertise is impressive, and one of the joys of the book is the way in which he brings little known works to our attention and places them firmly within the narrative of the development of English art. It is easy to recommend this work to both the art student and the general reader, since it represents an important contribution to the literature of this period in our art history.--Paul Flux