Hogarth As Artist, Chronicler, And Moralist

WHETHER Hogarth “reach’d the noblest point of Art ” may be questioned without injustice. Art is, fortunately, a term of catholic application within reasonable limits, and it is not essential that we should find in Hogarth the qualities which made for greatness in other artists in order to assign him an important place among our English painters. His work was of a many-sided character; full of purpose, full also of his own temperament and opinion. Besides being an artist, he was a chronicler of his time, and in representing life as he saw it he moralized upon social and personal imperfections. It may be well, therefore, to consider him shortly in this triple character—as artist, as chronicler, and as moralist.

AS ARTIST

Considered in the light of conformity to strict artistic principles Hogarth’s work bears unfavourable comparison with that of many other British painters. From the first he was essentially an impulsive and rapid worker, whose creations leapt to life upon the plate or canvas while newly formulated in his brain. His ardent temperament, ceaseless industry, and, above all, contempt for conventional traditions, kept him from pursuing the well-ordered path of progressive study which alone can produce the highest form of art. With Hogarth, to conceive was to execute. Whether he lashed the political corruption of the time, assailed the foibles of a well-known public character, or held up to scorn and ridicule some subject of his personal dislike, he did so with a robust contempt for convention and a somewhat assertive confidence in his own powers. As a result, those qualities which make his pictures great are qualities attaching more to himself than to his painting.

This view, however, must not be pressed too far. The fact that many of Hogarth’s pictures are deficient in drawing and weak in chiaroscuro, reflects upon their circumstances to a far greater degree than upon their author’s ability as an artist. In plain language, he could, and did, do very much better when he liked ; but he himself made no profession of draughtsmanship in his less important pictures, and especially in his cheaper engravings. He preferred a graphic, direct representation, ruggedly outlined and roughly treated, to a laborious finely-drawn composition, which might be better art but would be less effective as an appeal to the popular mind. But when he put forward the fullness of his power, as in Marriage a-la-mode, Hogarth attained a quality of execution which gives to such pictures a distinct place and value in the artistic world. The dejected, sprawling figure of the dissolute Viscount Squanderfield, in the second picture of the series, is an admirable example, alike of drawing and attitude. Note, also, the gracefully-drawn central group in The March to Finchley, where the stalwart soldier is torn by conflicting emotions, born of the feminine influence on either side ; or the stripling Rake in Scene I. of The Rake’s Progress, whose whole attitude is one of unconscious ease. These are examples from the pictures reproduced in this volume; it would be easy to extend similar praise to very many individual characters throughout Hogarth’s works.

Although never a great portrait-painter, Hogarth achieved an all-round success with. his portraits which was denied to many of his smaller pictures. They are clearly and straightforwardly painted, and are acknowledged to be for the most part good likenesses—two qualities which constitute nearly the whole sum of necessary requirements. Hogarth was aided in his portraiture by a genius for describing human expression, although the gift did not here stand him in such good stead as in the impersonal pictures and engravings. This power of facial reproduction was undoubtedly among his strongest points as an artist ; few painters have ever succeeded so admirably in fitting their characters with passions and emotions. Caricatures, grotesques, call them what we will, Hogarth’s men and women laugh and weep before us. His rogues have roguish faces ; his vicious beaux betray their inclination ; his grief-stricken women are figures of real sorrow and desolation (e.g., the deserted sweetheart in the ” Rake ” picture) ; his children are natural and innocent until they become the depraved urchins of the street. In his management of crowds and groups Hogarth is, with few exceptions, uniformly successful. The scenes are enacted before our eyes ; we live in the lifetime of the second George, and enjoy the buffoonery of a country fair or the humour of a kerbstone gathering. The painter had also a power of pictures. They are clearly and straightforwardly painted, and are acknowledged to be for the most part good likenesses—two qualities which constitute nearly the whole sum of necessary requirements. Hogarth was aided in his portraiture by a genius for describing human expression, although the gift did not here stand him in such good stead as in the impersonal pictures and engravings. This power of facial reproduction was undoubtedly among his strongest points as an artist ; few painters have ever succeeded so admirably in fitting their characters with passions and emotions. Caricatures, grotesques, call them what we will, Hogarth’s men and women laugh and weep before us. His rogues have roguish faces ; his vicious beaux betray their inclination ; his grief-stricken women are figures of real sorrow and desolation (e.g., the deserted sweetheart in the ” Rake ” picture) ; his children are natural and innocent until they become the depraved urchins of the street. In his management of crowds and groups Hogarth is, with few exceptions, uniformly successful. The scenes are enacted before our eyes ; we live in the lifetime of the second George, and enjoy the buffoonery of a country fair or the humour of a kerbstone gathering. The painter had also a power of suggesting more than was directly expressed, and this by introducing little tricks, born of his own ingenuity, which nevertheless appear a natural part of the picture. Putting aside the subtle suggestiveness of a thousand details, here are two instances of more obvious suggestion, whereby we see more in the picture than is actually visible. They occur in The Cock-Pit and in the fourth scene of The Election, entitled ” Chairing the Members.” In the former, a shadow is thrown upon the battle-ground ; it is that of a defaulting spectator, suspended from the roof in a sort of basket, and tendering his watch in pledge for his freedom—a personage and a custom which otherwise could not have been shown within the area of the picture. In the Election scene we are inclined to wonder at the plural, for only one member is being borne aloft—until we note upon the court-house wall behind him the shadowy outline of his colleague, whose material form is as yet invisible in the procession.

As a colourist Hogarth was judicious and effective, without attaining to any particular brilliancy. His colour-schemes are unequal : contrast, for example, his own portrait in the National Gallery with the picture of The Shrimp Girl in the same room. He is most successful in the crowded subject-pictures, and in the several series of which Marriage â-la-mode is the crowning example. In these, where the temptation to excessive colouring might have been an easy one, the painter wisely restrained his treatment, with the happy consequence that real life is strongly and naturally simulated. One or two individual pictures may seem too dull, but at any rate the failing, if it exists, is on the right side ; for in proportion as a subject-picture is over-coloured, it increasingly becomes less like what it is meant to portray.

Hogarth made but few incursions into the realms of art beyond his forte. The non-success of these attempts sufficiently proves the limits of his genius, and at the same time accentuates the excellences in his characteristic work. Apart from the ambitious Sigismunda, his emulation of the old masters—for such, in effect, it was, despite his unveiled hostility to the schools—was confined to Biblical subjects ; viz.: the two paintings on St. Bartholomew’s Hospital stair-case, the Moses, now in the Foundling Hospital, and Paul before Felix, which belongs to the Hon. Society of Lincoln’s Inn. None of these is in any way remarkable. The former pair attempted to realize a great scheme of wall-painting, with figures seven feet high; but they were no fit undertaking for an artist whose pencilled figures had nearly always been limited to inches. In Moses before Pharaoh’s Daughter the seated Princess is gracefully painted, and the hesitating boy happily expressed ; but the setting and florid treatment savour more of the scene-painter, faults which are paramount in Paul before Felix, an altogether unworthy piece of work.

As an artist Hogarth abounds in graphic delineation of character and a keen sense of humour. His presentments of popular life and emotion have never been surpassed, and his facility of composition and detail make his pictures veritable storehouses of enjoyment. While his drawing is at times perfect, and most of his portraits accurate and life-like, there are many of his works which betray neither of these qualities. Hogarth’s chief title to immortality will be found to rest upon qualifications other than those of scrupulous accuracy and conscientious painting —upon qualifications, that is to say, which give to his pictures a practical value unknown to many far greater works of art.