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by Michéle C. Cone
The 18th-century English genre painter and engraver William Hogarth (1697-1764) has long been unfavorably compared to his French counterparts, Jean-Antoine Watteau, François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard, for an all too redundant moralizing and an overly painstaking attention to anecdotal detail. His art is receiving renewed attention with a retrospective exhibition that was recently on view at the Musée du Louvre in Paris and that is soon to appear first at Tate Britain and then at La Caixa Forum in Madrid.

In Paris, the poster that served as a come-on for "Hogarth" featured a young couple in fashionable though somewhat disarrayed clothing, obviously exhausted from a night of sexual carousing, sprawled in separate chairs in front of a fireplace full of dying embers. In this rompish fragment from a painting in Hogarth’s series entitled "Le Mariage à la mode" (1743-1745), the manservant dressed in black exiting stage right, rolling his eyes and making a gesture of disapproval, has been cropped out.

Not only does this fragment emphasize Hogarth’s debt to French painting of the same era -- the pink dress of the bride is pure 18th-century French fashion, the man’s frilly cuffs a very French aristocratic accoutrement -- but the special cropping for the advertising poster limits a number of visual clues needed to interpret the narrative. The moralizing element is gone and in its place is a promise to the viewer of a salacious experience, not exactly what Hogarth’s work is supposed to be about.

An innovator who railed against the prevailing taste for Italianate religious pictures, Hogarth picked his subjects from contemporary life rather than history, used the visual medium like a sociologist to explore and to criticize the mores of rich and poor alike, and popularized his ideas by selling engravings of the original works. A moralist, he lived a paradox in that often his work dealt with his contemporaries’ sexual mores.

The show begins with two self-portraits. In the earlier one dated 1735 (from the Yale Center for British Art), Hogarth defines himself as young, ambitious and fashionable, wearing a wig and holding a palette. The artist is 38 years old, and has risen to the top of his profession as a painter and engraver despite a difficult and humiliating beginning. For several years, he, his sisters and his mother were obliged to live in a "debtors’ residence" next to the jail where his father was imprisoned after his bankruptcy. Apprenticed as a young man to the painter James Thornhill, he sought the hand of the artist’s daughter and had to elope with her when his marriage proposal was rejected.  

Such experiences may help explain the social conscience always latent in Hogarth’s art. By 1735, however, he had become well known as a painter and engraver and, after the death of his father-in-law in 1734, had founded his own painting academy of St Martin’s Lane. Facing widespread piracy of his popular prints, he pressed Parliament for a law protecting the copyrights of engravers. Known as the Hogarth Act, this law started Hogarth on the way to wealth.

Ten years later, in the other self-portrait on view in Paris, this one from 1745, he portrays himself near a sad-eyed pug, perhaps the alter ego of the artist. The dog, a traditional symbol of friendship and fidelity, shares space with other substitutes for human companionship, a pile of books, one by Shakespeare, one by Swift and one by Milton, and an artist’s palette. The attire of the artist is greatly changed from the earlier self-portrait. No more wig, but a bonnet, no white finery stuck into the front of his jacket, but rather a black shirt covered by a loose-fitting red bathrobe. And no cockiness in the glance of the sitter, but the self-contained, self-judgmental look of a psychologist. In 1753, his Analysis of Beauty is published. In 1764, he dies.

At the Louvre, beyond the self-portraits and portraits of various personalities of his time, one enters or rather is unwittingly pushed forward by the crowd into narrow galleries where the usual art experience is subverted and challenged. Lined up horizontally on the walls are small genre pictures (or engravings) of similar shape arranged sequentially to tell a story. The experience is not that of the theater, where the viewer is stationary as the play unfolds while the sets change with each scene or act. But it resembles it. For each tableau is a different scene in a play in two or more acts. The setting can change from urban to rural, exterior to interior; but the main characters in each tableau remain the same.

Hogarth claimed to have invented this complex narrative form, though some have noted its similarity to the way Bible stories are told in early Italian Renaissance paintings. In any case, he applied it to a variety of contemporary social and political subjects, and it has often been compared to cartoon strips.

For his part, the artist wrote, "Subjects I considered as writers do; my picture was my stage and men and women my actors who were by means of certain actions and expression to exhibit a dumb show." Assuredly, Hogarth brought acting and painting ever closer together. A number of his works deal with performances of Shakespeare plays. He relied on set changes to indicate the passage of time, he filled his interiors with infinite details of furniture, objets d’art, paintings, each with its own story to tell. His city scenes describe specific streets, the buildings along them, as well as the individual types to be found in a particular neighborhood. Hogarth also paid close attention to the dress code of his figures and was a master of expressive gesture. 

"Marriage A-la-Mode" (1743-45), one of his most famous sequences, unfolds in six tableaux, and involves a large cast of characters. The first scene shows a rich middle-class father signing a contract that seals his daughter’s marriage to an impoverished earl’s son, setting the financial terms of the union, within sight of a pair of lawyers as well as the bride and groom. We are to understand that the earl’s son is in it for the money (he looks away from his future bride, and the retriever dogs at his feet suggest a passion for hunting), and that one of the lawyers involved in drafting the contract is already eying the future bride as a potential mistress (he is whispering something in her ear).

By the second tableau, mentioned above, in which the bride and groom are depicted exhausted after a night of frolicking, the bride -- we should understand -- has been entertaining someone not her husband (the lawyer from tableau one) and the young husband has been spending the night with someone not his wife (the childish young girl seen crying in tableau three, because the remedy against venereal disease that the doctor has prescribed for her is not working).

This familiar 18th-century saga -- which in this case ends with the death of the husband in tableau five as well as that of his wife in tableau six -- admirably conforms to the mores of those days when wealthy young women were being married off for economic or political gain. The brides-to-be would agree to such deals, knowing full well that they would find lovers to replace their indifferent husbands. As we understand through other sources, this was the true story of Marie-Antoinette, the Hapsburg princess who was offered by her mother to the then king of France for his son Louis XVI, in exchange for peace with France. And this was true of the wealthy aristocratic married women that Jean-Jacques Rousseau writes about in his Confessions, and with whom the penniless but attractive philosopher happily consorted.

As for the fear of venereal disease also conveyed in "Marriage A-la-Mode," it was, together with fear of the plague, the century’s obsession. One might add here that the quack doctor who appears in tableau three was another stereotype of those times, as was the underage prostitute that the husband cavorts with in the same picture.  

Thus Hogarth emerges as someone finely attuned to the sexual mores of the rich but, most unusual for his day, also concerned with the plight of poor young girls from the country, who were attracted to the city by the promise of a job that turned out to be none other than prostitution. In the first scene of another famous Hogarthian sequence, "The Life of a Prostitute," also on view in Paris, Hogarth deals directly with the prostitution issue. He depicts a young farm girl Mary (Moll Hackabout) stepping off a coach expecting to "go into service" as a servant in the big city, and being greeted by a madam instead.

Like Moll Flanders, the heroine of Defoe’s 1722 first-person "memoir" of a poor orphan girl from the country, Moll Hackabout had few options. In fact, one could say that poor girls had only their youth and their beauty to pander, that their pretty body was their safety net. It was their only capital, in the view of Sophie Carter, the author of Purchasing Power: Representing Prostitution in 18th Century English Popular Culture.

Overall, Hogarth’s method of storytelling leaves a lot to the imagination of viewers. Looking at the four tableaux of "The Four Times of The Day, Morning, Noon, Evening, Night" is a bit like looking at the photo albums of strangers. The characters are hard to recognize from image to image. Tableaux one and two seem to be taking place in the streets of a city, while tableau three has a more countrified setting. Snow is visible in tableau one, but it is gone in the next three episodes. Though each of the four sequences works well as a genre scene, and beautifully conveys the different atmosphere of each time of day, the story line is hard to follow, and requires viewers to fill the gaps between tableaux.

One pair of genre scenes by Hogarth featured in the Paris show does not pose such a challenge. Entitled Before and After (1730), it shows the same young couple in the woods by a tree before and after. . . fornication. Eighteenth-century London became known for its pleasure gardens, places people visited to indulge all of their senses, from music and theatre to scented gardens where prostitutes plied their trade. It is thus possible that Hogarth had in mind this particular setting for his lovers’ tryst. While in the Before picture, the young woman is shown in a demure pose, gesturing to the young man "leave me alone" with her right hand, she is depicted in the After scene from such an angle that one can look into her open legs and bare thighs, as she half stands near a partner who has yet to lift up his pants.

Whether Hogarth meant this image to be a negative commentary on the loose morals of the day or to show that girls with modest means could never win the battle of the sexes is debatable. What can be said is that Hogarth’s puritanical side did not keep him from indulging his more prurient interests in the process, something artists have done from time immemorial -- the latest display of such double standards was recently on view at the Gogosian gallery with John Currin paintings portraying sweet-faced young boys and grandfatherly old men right out of The Saturday Evening Post next to close-ups of nude bodies entwined in orgiastic embrace, culled from Playboy Magazine ads.

MICHÉLE C. CONE is a New York-based critic and historian. Her latest book is French Modernisms: Perspectives on Art before, during and after Vichy (Cambridge 2001).