William Hogarth-short biography

William Hogarth (1697–1764), English painter, engraver, and philosopher of aesthetics. Hogarth was the son of a Latin teacher and scholar whose financial failure led him to apprentice young William to a silver engraver. At age twenty-two, the young engraver set up in business for himself, producing shop cards, book illustrations, and original satires. He associated himself with the tradition of English satiric literature from Butler and Dryden to Swift, Pope, and Gay.

To raise his status, he joined John Vanderbank’s academy, took up oil painting, and attached himself to Sir James Thornhill, the most successful native-born history painter, whose daughter he married. Hogarth began to paint small conversation pieces of groups in social settings. Then, with brilliant ingenuity, he joined these conversations, topical satires, and illustrations of satiric works (in particular, Butler’s Hudibras) to original stories of his own. The resulting works—A Harlot’s Progress (1732) and A Rake’s Progress (1735)—produced as both paintings and engravings, made his reputation.
Hogarth prefaced these projects with programmatic subscription tickets and incorporated into their images parodies of New Testament scenes, with the aim of showing that contemporary London life, represented by an English artist, was art as viable as the over-varnished history paintings of the foreign “dark masters” that then dominated the market in England. His most ambitious effort was Marriage à la mode (1745), but his attempt to sell the paintings for Old Master prices was not successful, and he turned to popular engravings with working-class imagery in Industry and Idleness, Beer Street and Gin Lane, and The Four Stages of Cruelty. He continued to paint portraits, and in the 1750s he returned to history painting on a larger scale with The Election (1754) and The Lady’s Last Stake (1759).
In the late 1730s, Hogarth abandoned the grim morality of his early “progresses” for something closer to pure comedy. He replaced the stark moral contrast of good and evil with balanced alternatives such as art and nature, or high culture and low. The mean was embodied by a pretty young woman, more nature than art, in examples such as The Distrest Poet, The Enraged Musician, or Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn.

From this time, Hogarth began to develop an aesthetics centered on the woman. He formulated it in writing in 1752 and 1753 and published The Analysis of Beauty (1753; edited by Ronald Paulson, London, 1997), a work that proposes a middle area between the Beautiful and the Great (or Sublime), based on metaphors of perception related to curiosity, pursuit, seduction, and surprise, which reveal in an object the greatest variety within a unity.

From anticlericalism and Protestant iconoclasm, Hogarth moved on to deism and freemasonry. The results were a morality that regarded the world as without God, and an aesthetics that replaced religion with natural beauty—the Tetragrammaton and the crucifix with Hogarth’s serpentine Line of Beauty, now known as the Hogarth Curve. In his final years, he fought the popular Burkean aesthetics of sublimity in images permeated by a Romantic strangeness unlike his earlier work, as seen in the engravings The Cockpit, Enthusiasm Delineated, and Tailpiece: Or The Bathos (c. 1759).

Hogarth exerted greater influence on writers (Fielding, Sterne) and aestheticians of the Picturesque (William Gilpin, Uvedale Price) than on artists, though a small school of Hogarth emerged in John Zoffany, Joseph Wright of Derby, the early work of Thomas Gainsborough, and (though much modified) that of J. M. W. Turner. His prints were immensely popular on the Continent, directly influencing J.-B. Greuze and, indirectly, J.-L. David, Francisco Goya, and others, and his aesthetics was highly regarded in Germany by G. E. Lessing and G. C. Lichtenberg.

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