On Hogarth

The Shrimp Girl

William Hogarth, 'The Shrimp Girl' (c. 1740-45)

There’s an awful lot of error abroad in the world. And although it’s easy enough — sometimes, for practical reasons, even necessary — to ignore the great bulk of it, now and then there’s an instance of witlessness so egregious that swiping back it at somehow feels less like fun for its own self-indulgent sake than something dangerously close to that even rarer treat, an actual moral imperative.

Consider, for instance, Regina Hackett’s condemnation of William Hogarth, to which the wise and sharp-eyed Franklin Einspruch recently drew our attention. In the context of criticising another Seattle-based critic, Jen Graves, Ms Hackett wrote the following on her ArtsJournal-fostered blog:

Graves also wrote Danzker’s exhibit, William Hogarth: Nationalism, Mass Media and the Artist, was “awesome-sounding.” Awesome? Hogarth is an illustrator in the worst sense of the word. He belongs in picture books accompanying stories.

And when Jen Graves replied with a perfectly reasonable retort, ‘I cannot even address a person who dismisses Hogarth’ — returning us briskly to the observation, aired above, that error is often best ignored — Ms Hackett offered up this by way of reply (the links in the quotation are hers, by the way):

Maybe it’s generational. Nobody from my time and place countenances the didactical moralism of Hogarth, the 18th-century’s Norman Rockwell.  It’s hardwired. You can have them both, Jen.

Even in the dog-days of summer, gilt-edged idiocy of this standard simply can’t be left lying around on the internet where anyone might pick it up. Let’s get to work on it. Where, though, faced with such an embarrassment of riches, ought we to start?

‘Didactical moralism’ is, clearly, an invitingly soft target for dissection. Leave to one side, out of pity as much as anything else, a reproach to the sort of critical consciousness for whom ‘didactical’ must sound at least a syllable more impressive than the ‘didactic’ it needlessly replaces. Leave aside also what must surely be the wholly unfair suspicion that, in branding Hogarth an ‘illustrator’, Ms Hackett revealed her ignorance of Hogarth’s many portraits and conversation pieces, the Biblical and historical scenes, let alone his disconcertingly free, almost jarringly immediate studies in oils — not least, the well-known Shrimp Girl shown above, reminding us of de Kooning as much as it does of Rubens or Goya. And finally, let us also leave unexamined the means by which Ms Hackett derived her extremely confident and assertively-voiced contempt for Hogarth, assuming (as surely we must) that any critic so formidable as to secure a regular berth with ArtJournal will of course have examined his autograph work over time and with some seriousness, rather than, e.g., simply mis-remembering him from dismissive footnotes in some modish survey textbook, or perhaps even a Wikipedia subheading.

No, let’s take it as read that Ms Hackett actually knows Hogarth’s work, has spent time poring over the tight yet often surprising compositional structures of his narrative paintings and prints, has noted if obviously not admired the infinite freshness of his observation and visual reproduction of detail, has got the measure of his limpid and subtle colour, his casually effective yet very distinctive use of brush and burin, his very many references to the work both of the Old Masters (his love-hate relationship with their achievement is everywhere in his art) and his contemporaries — Ms Hackett has done all this, and thus rejected Hogarth on the strength of knowledge, not the dogmatism of ignorance.

We must, then, accept that Ms Hackett either does not recognise Hogarth as an artist of formidable formal intelligence and painterly skill, or, alternatively, accept that in Ms Hackett’s eyes, these qualities are no defence against that terrible condemnation, that Hogarth was not only an ‘illustrator’, but ‘an illustrator in the worst sense of the word’ (!) — hence, presumably, her righteous inability to ‘countenance’ his ‘didactical moralism’.

At some level, the charge is a perfectly accurate one. Hogarth was, certainly, an illustrator — in the sense that he did, obviously, provide illustrations for various literary texts, including incidentally a few rather good plates for Sterne’s Tristram Shandy — although these are hardly amongst his best-known works, and certainly not to be confused with his narrative cycles, free-standing works dependent on no text whatsoever. But before the tepid bathwater of that particular strand of prejudice drains away entirely, let’s count just how many art-historical babies Ms Hackett may simultaneously have jettisoned. It would, perhaps, be too easy to ear-tag all Biblical, mythological and historical painting as ‘illustration’, dependent upon texts though they may be, so we’ll avoid that. Still, a list of ‘artists’ who might similarly be condemned ‘illustrators’  — people supplied the pictures for other people’s stories, to echo Ms Hackett’s formulation — might reasonably include Durer, Holbein, Cranach, Titian, Rembrandt, Stubbs, Blake, Hokusai, Beardsley, Picasso, Calder, Miro, Hockney and indeed dozens of others, as this really is the sort of game one might play all day, at least if one enjoys at least a cursory acquaintance with the history of Western art.

In any event, the toll of casualties is a heavy one, especially if one doesn’t happen to share Ms Hackett’s apparent conviction that ‘art’ and ‘illustration’ are mutually exclusive, or what might well be her certitude that the presence of meaningful subject matter automatically cancels out any formal or expressive power. (Perusing Ms Hackett’s blog over recent days, it remains less than entirely clear to me what it is, exactly, that Ms Hackett admires or values in art, since her critical method seems principally to consist of uploading a few images in sequence and then, on a good day, captioning them.) But because we’re naturally inclined to charity, let’s accept, at least by way of thought experiment, not only Ms Hackett’s implication that the wretched ‘illustrator’ Hogarth’s work boils down to what he called his ‘comic histories’, but also her condign judgement that these works reek of ‘didactical moralism’, and see where that takes us.

Self-evidently, there’s a sustainable case to be made that Hogarth was, in fact, primarily a moraliser. We can be sure of this, because we know who made the case. In the first instance, it was the Rev. James Townley, hired by Hogarth to provide rhyming commentary for the Four Stages of Cruelty. Later, it was the Rev. John Trusler, who in 1766, shortly after Hogarth’s death, was engaged by the artist, ahem, illustrator’s widow ‘to explain each Print, and moralize on it in such a Manner as to make them instructive as well as entertaining.’ Trusler’s Hogarth Moralised — illustrating the prints, but rendering them secondary to Trusler’s moralising exegesis — was published in 1768. The small volume was, apparently, ‘Calculated to improve the Minds of youth, and Convey Instruction, under the mask of Entertainment’. It was reprinted several times in the mid-nineteenth century, achieving enough commercial success to ensure that those battered, gold-edged volumes were still turning up in obscure second-hand bookshops and the dark corners of grandparents’ libraries well within living memory.

Ms Hackett will, no doubt, know this already, having benefited from Jenny Unglow’s eye-opening Hogarth: A Life and a World (1997), through which the above intelligence reaches us. The point, though, might well be underscored for the edification of those less learned than Ms Hackett. The reason why Hogarth, and later his widow, needed to pay someone to ‘moralize’ Hogarth’s ‘comical histories’, particularly in their mass-market printed version, must surely have been that the ‘moralizing’ wasn’t so firmly embedded in the works themselves as to render potential purchasers confident of the prints’ moral force, or at any rate, that whatever ‘moralizing’ may have gone on remained sufficiently ambiguous — in places, almost dangerously so — as to require realignment delivered by, of all things, a written text. So far were these prints from ‘illustrations’, in other words, that it was felt necessary, after the fact, to interpose a screen of language between the images themselves and their intended consumers. Perhaps only with the help of all those layers of prophylactic pre-packaging could Hogarth’s work safely be allowed to circulate amongst an increasingly polite, genteel and morally anxious proto-Victorian audience.

For in truth, Hogarth’s narrative cycles, apparently so straightforward, tend to defy definitive readings. Indeed, it’s precisely at those points where his ‘message’ seems the most uncomplicated that we should regard it with the most urgent suspicion.

Here, more than anywhere else, that Hogarth demonstrates kinship with his younger contemporary, the more highly-esteemed but certainly equally misunderstood Goya, although of course much more binds them — the energetic social-climbing, the pursuit of success at court, the famous associates, the hard-to-pin-down politics and religion, the difficulties in knowing where to fit each of these two highly individual consciousnesses within the tidy narratives of art history — subject always to the sort of accidental contextual differences which, for instance, allowed Hogarth to attack his powerful targets by name and to lobby for what eventually became the Engravers’ Copyright Act (1735), while Goya was forced to be far more circumspect, far less obviously offensive, in order to protect both his interests and his liberty.

Ambiguity, in any event, is the common language linking their graphic work. For just as it’s not always remotely clear where Goya stands in relation to the nightmare visions of Los desastres de la guerra, let alone the more surreal although not much less distressing rigours of Los Caprichos — since virtually all critics sooner or later give in to the temptation to remake Goya in their own image, the notion that Goya’s etchings might contain a fair bit of voyeurism, perhaps even sadism, rarely enjoys much of an outing — it’s by no means clear what ‘moral’ Hogarth wishes us to draw from his narrative pictures, or even how we are expected to react to them.

Take, by way of easy illustration [sic] of this point, that famous pair of inter-dependent images, Beer Street and Gin Lane. Superficially, the message could hardly be more obvious if we were to read it splashed across the front page of tomorrow’s Daily Mail. Everything was fine — or so Hogarth seems to suggest — when people drank good old English beer, but the moment the deplorable foreign vice of gin-swilling arrives in London, the entire social fabric begins to dissolve under its headachey influence. Families disintegrate; civil disorder ensues; the only businesses that thrive are those of the pawnbroker, the gin-merchant and the coffin-maker; ecclesiastical architecture loses its gravity and turns fanciful. So far, so simple. The moral: don’t drink gin! Just say no, kids — good advice, by the way, still topical right now, in a part of London’s West End not infrequently subject to the deleterious effect of alcopops on public manners and morals. How difficult was that to figure out?

It’s more difficult than it looks at first glance, actually. How, first of all, are we expected to respond to these scenes? The words that contemporaries used most often in describing the effect of Hogarth’s engravings seem to have been ‘amusement’ or ‘entertainment’. But just how funny are infanticide, suicide and addiction? These were, let us remember, real issues — as Jenny Uglow’s Hogarth makes clear, Georgian London truly did experience problems relating to gin consumption every bit as complex and occasionally distressing as those posed by illegal drug consumption today — around which similar debates arose. Would regulation help, for instance, or would it drive the trade underground, binding it ever more closely to other forms of criminality? Should it be taxed more, or simply better policed? Who’s to blame — the people who produce the stuff, or the people who sell it, or the people who consume it? To what extent is someone ‘under the influence’ really responsible for his or her actions? What’s the role of poverty, religion, politics and cultural standards in all of this? Is it the alienated urban underclass who both invite our voyeuristic fascination and deserve our righteous fury at the mess they sometimes make of their lives — or are we, in fact, somehow as much to blame as they are?

These are still current issues. News reports still hinge on them, as anyone who followed the British news this past week will, alas, be very much aware. Without them, newspaper leader writers and syndicated columnists would have little to write about, professional pontificators and media-friendly politicians little to discuss. The point, though, is that just as we have few easy answer to these questions now, we’re particularly ill-qualified to know what Hogarth might or might not have thought about them. He was, as Ms Hackett is doubtless aware, an energetic campaigner on a number of issues, for example offering practical support for Captain Coram’s new Foundling Hospital — childless himself, he and his wife Jane fostered homeless children. So how are we meant to feel about the baby falling to his or her death in Gin Lane, or indeed the orphan weeping beside his mother’s coffin?

The composition of Gin Lane is an upsetting one, in which none of the lines which ought to run parallel seem to do so, and in which linear fragments jut assertively into the centre of the image, almost as if stabbing it. Beer Street, in contrast, is furnished with pleasing orthogonals and walls that stand straight. In the reassuring Beer Street composition, however — apparently the antithesis of the gin-sodden hell that follows — everything leads the viewer’s eyes, eventually, to pause at the top of the ladder, where a painter — scrawny, ragged, rather shifty-looking — is re-painting the pub’s distinctive sign. And here, famously, Hogarth does something rather surprising, for protruding from the painter’s pocket is, very obviously, a smallish bottle of gin. What does this say about who’s to blame for what will come next?

Hogarth, we may perhaps imaginatively surmise, was often genuinely angry with the viciousness, cruelty, hypocrisy, calculation and callousness he saw everywhere about him, but he was no purveyor of glib or easy answers to the difficult questions thrown up by his own imagery. And this, in turn, surely renders him a deeply problematic ‘moralizer’. Ms Hackett may perhaps wish, at this point, to contend that the admixture of gritty, uncomfortable subject-matter into the sacred realms of art is, in itself, a sort of culpable failure — that the practice of art should never be made subsidiary to any other sort of project, whether devotional, political, dynastic, militaristic, morally normative, ludic, decorative or otherwise. In doing so, however, she’d be creating rather a sticky sort of problem for herself. It is, after all, pretty hard to argue that any ‘art’ at all created before the very recent past, or even quite a lot of the art still created today, was ever really intended to function as an end in itself, and equally difficult to claim that when we find, for instance, brilliantly persuasive formal qualities in an older work of ‘art’, that these were meant by their maker to do more than fulfil some higher aim.

Strip all the ‘moralizing’ and ‘illustration’ out of ‘art’, in other words, and there might not be much left in the gallery afterwards. Meanwhile, one struggles to understand exactly why Gin Lane should be somehow more disgraceful in respect of its ‘moralizing’ than, say, Goya’s Third of May, Picasso’s Guernica, James Rosenquist’s F-111, Philip Guston’s paintings of Klansmen, Cindy Sherman’s entire oeuvre, ditto that of Tracey Emin, ditto that of Leon Golub. One could even go further, suggesting that producing art which professes itself entirely above and beyond moral issues is, in itself, exhibiting a distinctive and perhaps not wholly attractive form of moral stance. What differentiates these various artists, to my mind at least, relates to the level of skill and flair that they bring to the business of making visual images, the extent to which the final image ‘works’, and — because, ultimately, I don’t think art is more important that life — the use to which the image is being put. All of which is rather arid, theoretical stuff, taking us quite a long way from Ms Hackett’s concrete certitudes. Let us return to them forthwith.

Of all Ms Hackett’s assertions — on reflection, ‘arguments’ is probably not the right word here — the ‘generational’ contention is at once the oddest, yet also, necessarily, the hardest to rebut. ‘Nobody from my time and place countenances the didactical moralism of Hogarth, the 18th-century’s Norman Rockwell.  It’s hardwired,’ writes Ms Hackett. And indeed, if one defines ‘from my time and place’ strictly enough, Ms Hackett is almost certainly correct, although it’s worth noting that she takes the precaution of omitting to tell us the time and place of her birth, just in case.

Presumably, as I was born in North Carolina in the last weeks of 1965, my admiration for Hogarth cuts absolutely no ice with Ms Hackett, so unbridgeable are the ‘hardwired’ generational and cultural chasms inevitably dividing us. (How lonely, though, for Ms Hackett, seemingly doomed to share her antipathies and enthusiasms with no one who doesn’t share her initial domicile and birthdate!) On the other hand, while there have always been people who couldn’t stand Hogarth’s work — not least, amongst his own London-dwelling contemporaries — there may well, perhaps, be younger folk alive today — one thinks here especially of the sort of young people who enjoy reading or even creating comic books — who value Hogarth, not simply for his savage humour or his inventiveness or his bad-tempered popularity, but also for his technical skill, his ability to capture the memorable detail, his brilliance at creating images that lodge themselves firmly in the eye more through formal power than some imagined ‘didactical moralizing’. Unlike Ms Hackett, however, the present author lacks absolute unfailing insight into the aesthetic and moral preferences of the rest of the entire human race, so cannot pronounce with confidence on these matters. We shall, therefore, leave the question hanging in the air, pausing only to admire, as we do so, Ms Hackett’s lapidary insight that preferences in art are ‘hardwired’ — a view not too far removed, come to think of it, from Hogarth’s own ‘line of beauty’ argument, later echoed by Reynolds and Burke.

Next let us turn, however glancingly, to the case of Norman Rockwell. Ms Hackett believes that Hogarth is Rockwell’s eighteenth century equivalent. This is, on the face of it, a surprising contention, if only because Rockwell wasn’t, for instance, a successful portrait painter, the author of an influential book on art theory, or a brilliantly effective engraver in his own right — Rockwell’s paintings and drawings were, I think, always intended for mechanical reproduction. Still, never mind. What Ms Hackett appears to mean is that Rockwell and Hogarth are, as it were, brothers across continents and centuries in their shared lack of skill, achievement, and / or art-historical significance (delete at your whim, as Ms Hackett provides little guidance on the matter.) Alas, basic ignorance of Rockwell’s oeuvre, method and motivation prevents me from pronouncing on this with any great firmness — I’ve never studied his work in its original context, never read much about its history, certainly never seen any of his pictures first-hand.

All the same, I’m considerably less casual than Ms Hackett is when it comes to denouncing a maker of visual artefacts whose images, however unthinkingly or even dismissively glimpsed, still somehow stick in my mind, if only because I don’t think it’s all that easy to make a truly memorable image, whether as ‘illustration’ or ‘art’. Indeed, were I ever somehow condemned to spend the rest of my life incarcerated within some white-cube space, getting to know the life achievement of, say, one of the following — Jeff Koons, Elizabeth Peyton, Tacita Dean, Matthew Barney, Mark Wallinger, [insert generationally-appropriate artist of your choice] or Norman Rockwell — in truth, I might well go for Norman Rockwell. We all, it turns out, have our own little stubborn prejudices, more or less wise or well-informed, although perhaps not all of us are aware of this.

By way of conclusion, though, let us be clear about what is and is not being claimed for Hogarth, in response to Ms Hackett’s dismissal of him. Was he the greatest artist that eighteenth century Britain produced? Clearly not, although the competition for that title would strike many as formidable, including as it did Thornhill, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Stubbs, Ramsay, Romney, Raeburn, Copley [yes, I know — but he lived and died a loyal British subject], Wright of Derby, Sandby, Blake, Zoffany and others. Yet when it comes to portraiture, Hogarth’s  Captain Thomas CoramThe Graham Children and a handful of other works are fit to bear comparison with anything else the century produced, compensating with vigour, directness and perhaps even candour for whatever they lack in elegance or polish, while his Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants sends one back to seventeenth century Dutch painting in search of a fair comparison. His much-belaboured Sigismunda was, alas, not all he had hoped she might be. Still, in his ‘comic histories’, or narrative paintings, or ‘moralizing art’, or whatever label under which one chooses to subsume their magnificently pungent variety, added up to rather more than he ever imagined.

Of course, it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to gauge the scope of that achievement in anything like objective terms. The fact that the adjective ‘Hogarthian’ has meaning for English speakers, just as the Dutch speak of a ‘Jan Steen household’, implies that Hogarth’s work remains the lens through which we still see a certain category of human behaviours, misfortunes, disasters — not, incidentally, because there are no other sources for perceiving the squalour, violence and hypocrisy inherent in aspects of eighteenth century English life, but because Hogarth’s portrayal of them still manages to communicate with us so directly. Its force is, perhaps, great even than that of Fielding’s satire or Sterne’s proleptic postmodernism, which is saying a lot. If Hogarth’s enthusiasms were strictly, perhaps even chauvinistically local — although not much more so, it must be said, than those of Vermeer, Guardi, Goya or Manet — then his broader relevance remains not only enduring, but also near-universal, at least to those whom snobbery or modishness or sheer ignorance haven’t blinded to his work.

True enough, Hogarth’s art didn’t exist in a vacuum. In creating his images, he was perhaps seeking some sort of communication with an audience, present and future. Possibly, he intended his work to amuse, engage, shock, surprise, divert, persuade and perchance even educate — although personally, that last seems to me the most tenuous of all these propositions. Whatever the exact nature of his ends may have been, at any rate, Hogarth deployed in their execution a continuing barrage of graphic skill, compositional brilliance, acute observation, hard work, art-historical knowledge, kind-hearted human sympathy and hard-edged indignation the like of which Western art has rarely seen before or since. He is not, in other words, to be dismissed lightly, if only because a failure to admire him seems somehow to say so much more about the critic than it does about Hogarth himself.

Ms Hackett wrote: ‘Nobody from my time and place countenances the didactical moralism of Hogarth, the 18th-century’s Norman Rockwell.  It’s hardwired. You can have them both, Jen.’

Jen Graves is well within her rights, obviously, to remain silent on this subject. The world is full of error, not all of which deserves the compliment of amendment. As for those of us who lack Ms Graves’ self-restraint, however, we may confine ourselves to the not entirely comforting observation that Ms Hackett, for all her brusque self-confidence con brio, her proudly-worn youth and her relatively exalted critical status, almost certainly has no idea at all what she’s missing.

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4 Comments

Filed under art, picking fights

4 responses to “On Hogarth

  1. JL

    Hm, since no one else is jumping in, may I add: thank you, and hooray for Hogarth! I must confess that I do enjoy Regina Hackett, in part because of her occasional perverse opinions; and while I sympathize with the impulse to leave them alone, as a reader I’m glad you didn’t in this case.

    The Uglow book is great. I’d only add that, among the many who evidently hail from a different time and place than Regina are all the French critics and visitors who hailed Hogarth’s 2006 retrospective at the Louvre as a revelation.

  2. Thanks, JL. What you write about the French critics and visitors at the 2006 retrospective is fascinating — but then, every time I visit the Louvre, I’m shocked at the degree to which the French arts establishment seems to respect British painting — which is to say, considerably less than they do their own national achievement, which is fair enough, but considerably more than plenty of British critics do, which is, frankly, odd.

    Oh well, à chacun son goût. Personally, Regina Hackett’s style of blogging doesn’t work for me — lots of bright photos, the odd would-be punchy assertion, not much in the way of erudition, analysis or even obvious engagement — but on the other hand, she’s got a gig with ArtJournal and plenty of fans, and presumably a serious career in art writing — not demanding much from her readership yet receiving considerable encouragement in return — so who’s to criticise her?

    Well, me, obviously, but having worked hard to achieve this level of critical unimportance, I might as well amuse myself with its advantages! Thanks, as ever, for reading as well as commenting.

  3. JL

    While the specific aesthetic reception no doubt differs, older American painting receives a somewhat similar level of regard over there, I think. Their exhibition on American Artists and the Louvre was not as big an event as the Hogarth one was, but received very respectful treatment–especially works by such little-known painters as Winslow Homer.

    I’d tend to agree that the sort of image-heavy posts that Hackett often puts up aren’t my preferred blog material. I tend to scroll through them quickly, barely looking, hunting down what I consider the “real” posts. The exceptions were the posts with images she did in the last days of her old blog at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer before its demise as a newspaper, which I found rather moving.

    While the familiarity of it might bore others, I’d have to say that my favorite Hogarth remains the second painting from ‘Marriage à la mode.’ It’s that sly, sideways look that seals it, I think.

  4. Hmm, interesting. My favourite Hogarth creation is the Shrimp Girl, admittedly not the most original choice — but there’s a candid unforced sweetness about it, an obvious happiness evident in the way it is made as well as in what it depicts, almost as good in its way as Houdon’s bust of his wife [I can’t seem to find a link that works, but I’m sure you know the one I mean] — all of which connects us with some facet of eighteenth century experience that otherwise might remain inaccessible, at least through visual art. (Unfortunately the confident freedom with which the paint is applied, which lends the work its sparklingly casual air, doesn’t fully come across in photographs, especially on the internet.)

    As for Ms Hackett, clearly someone enjoys what she’s doing, and that’s the main thing.