William Hogarth As Moralist

A large number of Hogarth’s pictures, including nearly all his best works, were painted with the definite object of calling attention to the vices of his time, either by direct portrayal or by the conveyed suggestion of satire. His own character was that of a warm-hearted, honest, impulsive little man ; strongly emotional, a good fighter, and with a temperament in open revolt against most of the evils he saw around him. We may well believe, therefore, that in making a choice of subjects he keenly relished the opportunities which presented themselves for attacking social and domestic vices at their most vulnerable points, by ridicule and exposure. Had it not been for the quality of his satire, it is doubtful whether such direct thrusts at the life of the day would have been so widely appreciated; but each class in turn enjoyed the shafts that were levelled at the other, so that Hogarth was able at the same time to bait and to entertain his public. His pictures, in their engraved form, enjoyed a wide circulation. They were full of moral suggestion, full of sermonizing tendency ; and no doubt the artist himself, who had but a slight opinion of pulpit orthodoxy, judged that his hand might do more for the moral improvement of his-fellows than could be accomplished by the re-iterated warning of preachers. Whether the results equalled the confidence it is almost impossible to say, as impersonal forces cannot be traced in their workings ; but at least it must be conceded that Hogarth tried, earnestly and assiduously, to paint evil in such a manner as to appeal with benefit to the popular con-science.

Hardly any form of turpitude escaped his lash. What may be denominated, broadly, specific vice, was powerfully portrayed in the two ” Progresses,” and among the plates of Industry and Idleness. In the former both the woman and the man end a career of crime and dissipation by death amidst miserable and degrading surroundings. In the latter the vicious apprentice expiates his offences at Tyburn, while, by way of contrast, Hogarth shows us the industrious colleague at the apex of civic honour. Disregard of matrimonial fidelity is the subject-matter of Marriage d-la-mode, where equally an unhonoured death is the fate of the errant pair. In all these pictures, and in others, the painter strives with the growing evil of gambling. Besides the reference to White’s cocoa-house, and the gaming scene in The Rake’s Progress, he introduces the passion into most of his scenes of dissipation. The Countess has cards strewn at her feet ; and at the other end of the social ladder a miserable group (Industry and Idleness, Plate III.) gamble at ” hustle-cap” upon a tombstone, one wretched being, more ragged than his fellows, having only a piece of planking between his safety and the literal grave. In the same series Hogarth introduces the highwayman, the watch-snatcher, the thieves’ consort, and other examples of low criminality, with condemnatory treatment.

Intemperance is assailed indirectly in various pictures—A Midnight Modern Conversation, the entertainment scene in the Election series, Plate III. of The Rake’s Progress, and others. For direct attack, however, we must turn to the two prints, Beer Street and Gin Lane. In these, and especially in the latter plate, Hogarth depicted the evil of drunkenness, in its many consequences, with a realism which could not fail to arrest even the most depraved attention. There is no need to emphasize the details, which no doubt harmonized with the necessities of the case in those days. Compared with Gin Lane, all other temperance cartoons have an atmosphere of gentle mildness.

Hogarth’s detestation of personal inhumanity found its chief expression in The Four Stages of Cruelty, a series of pictures in which the detailed treatment is so heart-stirring, not to say horrible, that they must be passed over with only a general reference. They form a powerful indictment against cruelty to animals, with various forms of which the first two plates are full. If they are to be accepted as true reflections of contemporary practices, the savagery of the time was of an appalling character.

The craze for financial speculation, of which past centuries hold no monopoly, was satirized in the picture of The South Sea Bubble, wherein Satan is the central figure in a scene full of significance. The introduction of the Monument indicates the meeting-place of these perfervid mammon -worshippers. Taste in High Life, although in an especial way a commission picture, may be taken to represent Hogarth’s scathing irony at extravagant dress and mannerisms ; and allusion has already been made to the extremely bitter satire entitled Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism, by which he attacked hypocrisy and false piety so far as they existed under the guise of religion. The Sleeping Congregation, also, was a milder satire upon religious indifference, while The Bench ridiculed pretension to judicial watch-fulness.

The bribery which permeated political campaigning was vigorously treated in the Election pictures. A significant piece of detail occurs in the entertainment scene, where feasting is in progress, in which ” spills ” for lighting pipes have been improvised from a torn leaf of the Act against Bribery and Corruption. In Scene II. a bucolic voter hesitates between the claims of rival agents, who press bank-notes upon him as the price of his support. Eating and drinking, and the prospect of gratuitous drama, are among the inducements held out at the candidates’ expense. The scene at the hustings is in its way inimitable. A deaf elector, prompted by a companion in fetters, is in the act of tendering his vote. Immediately behind is a citizen apparently in extremis, who is yet alive enough to satisfy all legal requirements. Blind and crippled voters complete the sum of “free and independent ” judgement on which the issue depends.

These are only a few of the more direct in-stances of Hogarth’s crusade against criminality and corruption. To appreciate the quantity of satirical allusion in this direction it would be necessary to take his subject-pictures one by one, examining each carefully for details. It would then be found that throughout his life the painter was consistently ranged on the side of virtue and honesty; and when we bear in mind that in those days this was anything but a popular cause to espouse, we must recognize in Hogarth not only the mind of an inventor but also the heart of a reformer. His slashing criticism was not merely general, it was frequently personal. Loose-livers, of whatever social grade, were liable to be pilloried for an example to their fellows ; and the frequent portraits which he introduced into his canvases are so many instances of such treatment. Had Hogarth lived in an entirely vicious age, keenly sensitive to the exposure of its faults, his path assuredly would not have been an easy one. But there were redeeming qualities enough to admire his satire, to be merry at his jests, and, let us hope, to profit by the expression of his feelings. Thus in his own way Hogarth erected his pictures into the dignity of moral forces ; and who will deny that they have their lessons even at the present day?