George Grosz was inspired by William Hogarth but Grosz gets better treatment from the Royal Academy than Hogarth gets from the Tate, says Norbert Lyntonby Norbert Lynton / May 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Hogarth wanted to be an English painter of grand manner history subjects, breaking the foreigner’s monopoly in high art. But, no, he would not go to Rome where that manner was to be acquired. The Raphael cartoons were on hand, a high renaissance outstation on English soil. For the rest, engravings of great art would inform him. Reynolds, younger and more single-minded, went to Rome in 1750 for two years. By then, Hogarth had invented an alternative role for himself, painting narrative series of “modern moral subjects” (his friend Henry Fielding called them “comic history paintings”) and selling prints of these and of London scenes, while also writing his anti-academic treatise, The Analysis of Beauty, and painting his servants’ portraits in one of the loosest and loveliest pictures of the age.
Critics are now asking whether Hogarth the painter, as against the printmaker, was up to scratch. He was born in central London in 1697, and a Tate exhibition is offered by way of tercentenary celebration. It feels off-hand, dully assembled in two ill-favoured rooms and consisting of paintings only. Not a generous selection either: 20 from the Tate’s own stock, 11 from other sources. But what a brilliant painter he was when he could be bothered-when, that is, he was pleasing himself. Those servants, for example, and his self-portrait.
Hogarth was certainly one of the century’s best painters, alongside Watteau, Chardin and Tiepolo. The self-portrait is stuck in a corner and in poor light, but nearby is everyone’s favourite, the Shrimp Girl, and the simple but brilliant Mrs Salter. The portrait of his friend Captain Thomas Coram-a self-made man who spent his last years creating the Foundling Hospital, which Hogarth turned into the first gallery of contemporary British art-is much too grand for a commoner. It takes on van Dyck, and by implication all them foreigners, to prove that Hogarth can pingere with the best of them, and it is a triumph: good-natured humanity shining through formalities invented to make kings and dukes presentable. These prove Hogarth’s case as painter. For further evidence go and see the Marriage ? la Mode series in the National Gallery and the A Rake’s Progress and An Election series in the Soane Museum. They may make you think that nothing changes, but try repeating another of Hogarth’s titles: O the Roast Beef of Old England!
The great aphorist Lichtenberg wrote a commentary…