Hogarth’s ‘Comic History Painting’ and its Difference from Caricature


1.0 Introduction

William Hogarth (1697-1764) was the first great English born painter and engraver who became especially popular because of his satirical and moral paintings. During the first half of the 18th century he became the dominant artistic personality in England, and he achieved this through his innovative genius for depicting the so-called English national character as well as making a reality of the concept of an English School of painting. This achievement gave him an importance beyond his talents as a great artist.

Hogarth was born in London on November 10th 1667, his father was Richard Hogarth, a schoolmaster who came south from Westmoreland to obtain literary work. However Hogarth’s father failed to make more than a meagre living and William was apprenticed to an heraldic engraver of silver plate. This apprenticeship ended with Richard’s death in 1718 so, left to his own devices and inclinations, William set up on his own as an engraver on copper in 1720.

Hogarth is generally regarded as the greatest pictorial satirist of England. This reputation he established initially through the plates he produced for Samuel Butler’s Hudibras in 1726. Prior to this he had produced satiric prints in response to the fashions of his day, including Masquerades and Operas (1724) which had brief popularity and were soon pirated. In the 1720s he rose through the profession as well as attending Cheron and Vanderbank’s Academy in St Martin’s Lane. Hogarth then attended Sir James Thomhill’s free school, which he eventually succeeded to after having eloped with Thomhill’s daughter in 1729.

Hogarth, restless for fame and with a family to support, then embarked on painting and engraving modem moral subjects. Thus was a new genre established in which he narrated, in a series of paintings and subsequent engravings, a story from contemporary life. He began with A Harlot’s Progress (1731-1732) the paintings being destroyed by fire in 1755, and the famous A Rake’s Progress (1735) now in the Soane’s Museum, London.

It is through the popular engravings of these paintings that Hogarth gained his renown as a brilliant satirist of contemporary moral follies. Then in 1743 he painted his most famous series known as Marriage-a-la-Mode and their engravings followed in 1745. This series was an exuberant and remarkable satire of a marriage of convenience for money gain. Moreover, the series was a powerful example of his mastery of complex scenes and his pungent portrayal of the foibles of upper-class life. To this period there belong many of his portraits including Garrick as Richard III (1745), Captain Coram (1740), The Graham Children (1742), and Mrs Salter (1744).

For the purposes of this essay it is intended to discuss in Section 2.0 Hogarth as a ‘comic history painter’ as opposed to him being a mere caricaturist, and to illustrate this matter further a discussion concerning Marriage-a-la-Mode follows in Section 3.0. In Section 4.0 it will be argued that Hogarth’s ouevre encompassed more than pictorial moralities and that he was indeed a fine portraitist and aestheticist as well. Furthermore, that Hogarth was indeed the man of his time who paved the way for the fuller development of English painting. And, as the real founder of the English School he also “…transformed genre painting — which was picturesque in Holland and galant in France — into painting with a moral message.” (Bazin, G. 1996).

2.0 Hogarth, comic history, and caricature

Hogarth used the term comedy with a wider meaning in his dramatic depiction of social life and thus he presented the “…character and behaviour of everyday life, not necessarily what was humorous and certainly not caricature, which he considered as the equivalent of farce.” (Gaunt, G. 1967). Henry Fielding (1707-1754) the English novelist, playwright, and friend of Hogarth, differentiated between the comic and the burlesque. Fielding thus compared the work of Hogarth, as a ‘comic history painter’ with the performances of the Italian caricature. Fielding wrote that Hogarth’s work consisted of the “…exactest copying of nature; insomuch that a judicious eye instantly rejects anything outre, and liberty which the painter hath taken with the features of that alma mater.” (Fielding, H. 1960). Caricature implies a portrait where the subject’s characteristic features are exaggerated for satiric or humorous purposes (Lucie-Smith, E. 1996).

Caricature exaggerates particular (physical of) facial features, dress, or manners of an individual to produce a ludicrous effect. The term comes from the Italian Caricare ‘to overload’ or ‘to exaggerate’. Caricature in its modem sense originated in the art school in Bologna founded by the Carracci family at the close of the 16th century. Similarly the term burlesque, from the Italian buria ‘mockery’, is a form of comic art characterised by ridiculous exaggeration. Satire, on the other hand, is derived from the Latin satura meaning ‘medley’ or ‘mixture’, and was used to deride or expose human vices or follies.

Henry Fielding (1960; 1742) pointed out that all licence was allowed in caricature whose aim, he points out, was to exhibit monsters — not men. All distortions and exaggerations were within the proper province of caricatura. In his Preface to Joseph Andrews Henry Fielding states that what was caricatura in painting was burlesque in writing. Therefore the comic painter (i.e Hogarth) and the comic writer (i.e Fielding) correlated with each other, stating that “…for the Monstrous is much easier to paint than describe, and the Ridiculous to describe than paint.” (Fielding, H. 1960).

Hogarth himself was occupied with the difference between caricature and true comic painting which he land Fielding, became concerned to explain in both words and images in 1743 — the comic histories comprised a subtle interweaving of word and image and “… represented a tremendous achievement, in fact a triumphant synthesis which towered above the petty preoccupations of the painterly connoisseurs on the one hand and the literary purists on the other.” (Jarrett, D. 1976). In a graphic sense Hogarth was not a caricaturist like Gillray or Rowlandson. James Gillray (1756-1815) was the greatest English political caricaturist, and Thomas Rowlandson stands with Gillray at the head of the caricature tradition and who had a Rococo sense of rhythm (Godfrey, R. 1998a; Godfrey, R. 1998b). Both Gillray and Rowlandson abstracted “…from the rest of the human make-up purely grotesque elements.” (Gaunt, W. 1967), and confirmed the definition of caricature as the “…pictorial exaggeration of a persons distinguishing features so as to excite ridicule and amusement.” (Godfrey, R. 1998).

Indeed, Hogarth himself was satirised by Tobias Smollet (1721-1771) who invented a character called Pallet in his picaresque novel Peregrine Pickle (1751) in order to mock at Hogarth’s bumptiousness and arrogance Two examples of Hogarth’s work may be cited to prove he was no caricaturist. In his Characters and Caricatures (1743) which was an engraved subscription ticket [see Figure 1] for his engravings of Marriage-a-la-Mode, he referred to Fieldings preface to Joseph Andrews. — main purpose was to illustrate the differences between the two methods of conveying likeness — caricature and comic painting (Jarrett, D. 1976).


Figure 1. Characters and Caricatures (1743).

In his The Bench (1758) the portrayal of judicial luminaries (who were clearly identifiable) he attached a caption to the engraving [see Figure 2]. The caption however makes it abundantly clear they were not the real targets of his satire — it read The BENCH, of the different meaning of the words Character, Caricatura and Outre in Painting and Drawing. Address’d to the Hoe° Coll. T…s..d.’ The caption thus referred to the brilliant caricaturist George Townsend. Townsend (1724-1807) was the first to apply the Italian art of caricature to political subjects and was deplored by Hogarth who despised caricature (Godfrey, R. 1998c).

The Bench 1758

Figure 2. The Bench (1758).

Hogarth was not a caricaturist but a painter of human comedy who correlated with his the view of his friend Henry Fielding who wrote “…I have endeavoured to laugh mankind out of their favourite follies and vices.” (Fielding, H. 1994). In Fielding’s opinion neither could Hogarth be called a burlesque painter because that would have dishonoured the ingenious painter, and defended the opinion saying “… it is much easier, much less the subject of admiration, to paint a man with a nose, or any other feature, of a preposterous size, or to expose him in some absurd or monstrous attitude, than to express the affections of men on canvas. It hath been thought a vast commendation of a painter to say his figures seem to breathe, but surely it is much greater and nobler applause that they appear to think.””(Fielding, H. 1960). Hogarth’s’ human comedy comprised both single pictures and pictures in series.

Of the single pictures mention can be made of Southwark Fair of 1733 [see Figure 3], the Rabelaisian March to Finchley of 1746 [see Figure 4], and Calais Gate,

Southwark fair

Figure 3. Southwark Fair (1733).

March to Finchley

Figure 4. The March to Finchley (1746).

or the 0, the Roast Beef of Old England of 1748 [see Figure 5]. In 1750 Hogarth offered the March to Finchley as a prize in a lottery. The original intention had been to dedicate the picture to George II but, incensed at the king’s disapproval of his rumbustious composition, Hogarth dedicated the print to the King of Prussia instead, was an encourager of the arts and sciences (Cork, R. 1997).

Calais Gate

Figure 5. Calais Gate or The Roast Beef of England (1748).

Examples of his comic history series paintings and engravings are A Harlot’s Progress (1731), Marriage-ala-Mode (1743), and The Election (1754). In order to explore deeper Hogarth as a `comic history’ painter further attention will now be paid to the series Marriage-a-laMode and, as there is a theatrical component in the artist’s background, some reference to his earlier work the Beggars Opera (1728).

3.0 Marriage-a-la-Mode

Hogarth in the 1740s, and with the support of Henry Fielding, proclaimed himself a `comic history painter. He did this in response to the suggestion he was a mere comic painter. Hogarth therefore dissociated himself from caricature which he regarded as a low’ genre and proceeded to produce the most accomplished of his moral cycles — the series Marriage-a-la-Mode (1743). Hogarth averred that he wanted to paint modem moral subjects and “… just as any Rococo painter, he thought of his picture as a miniature stage — but one on which should appear the ridiculousness of real men and women.” (Levey, M. 1992). For Hogarth’s friend Henry Fielding the only source of true ridiculousness was affectation which preceded from vanity and hypocrisy.

Hogarth was theatrically associated with John Gay’s The Beggars Opera (1729), two versions of which are shown as Figures 6 and 7. Hogarth’s Beggar’s Opera satirised the conventions of the Italian opera — the musical style of the Rococo. John Gay (1685-1732) was an English dramatist and poet whose fame rests primarily on The Beggar’s Opera but it is not the value of tragedy. Likewise, the vain, the ridiculous, the hypocritical in comic history painting, was the means of aligning human forces in comedy but without sliding into caricature.

Beggars opera 2

Figure 6. The Beggar’s Opera (1729).

Beggars opera V

Figure 7. The Beggar’s Opera (1729).

The essence of tragedy can be conceived as the conflict between two `rights’. Thus, in his series known as the Progresses and Marriage-a-la-Mode “…the narrative urge is quite clear in his concept of series of compositions.” (Levey, M. 1992). They are not however mere narrative series. Comedy and tragedy are the reverse and obverse of the same coin, and it would be a mistake to regard them as mutually exclusive when they are subtly interrelated, even interdependent. For example, bearing in mind Hogarth’s theatrical preoccupations (in itself a reflection of the French Rococo interest in the Commedia dell’Arte and the ensemble style of Rococo art) one can reflect on the tragic clown motif of Leoncavello’s opera I Pagliacci. This theme of tragedy and comedy within one scene, one narrative, is a ceature of Hogarth’s comic history painting. For Hogarth the world was a stage and that stage was an open book.

The Marriage-a-la-Mode series was announced in 1743 and which Hogarth termed a Variety of Modem Occurrences in High Life. However, scenes from contemporary life were not new. They existed previously in works by 17th century Dutch and Flemish masters, and series pictures were not unknown either — e.g., the ‘Prodigal Son by Murillo. In his creation of a virtually new category of picture, the comic history painting, Hogarth demonstrated a broader social view. As in the Marriage-a-la-Mode, The Election, The March to Finchley, he showed he could paint both ‘high’ and low’ life — and both on the same canvas. Hence both tragedy and comedy can appear in the same scene. Hence Marriage-a-la-Mode was not only a superb panorama of contemporary life on the grand scale it was also a spectacle of decline and fall. The series depicts the resulting disasters arising out of a contrived marriage based on selfish mercantile motives. The plot is thus simple in outline. It is the unfolding story of a marriage of convenience between the son of a bankrupt earl and the daughter of a wealthy City merchant. The entire arrangement has a fatal outcome after scenes of self-indulgence arising out of an original mercenary transaction. Hogarth, employed a theatrical framework and attempted to construct a series of pictures portraying society on all levels “…richer in circumstantial than A Rake’s Progress.” (Gaunt, W. 1967). All six paintings were done in 1743 but were not engraved in France until 1745.

Scene I [see Figure 8] called The Marriage Contract shows the old and gouty Earl of Squandersfield — the foppish descendant of an ancient bloodline – indicating his bargaining ploy, a picture of his family tree. Indeed, he reclines in affectation of Watteauesque grace whereas the avaricious merchant has the squat inelegance of a Dutch burgher (Bindman, D. 1998b). It is a transaction that brings him gold and bank notes from the merchant. The reason for the Earl’s pecuniary circumstances is seen through the window — an unfinished and reckless investment in a pretentious Palladian mansion. The Earl’s son lounges and gazes into a mirror in narcissistic contemplation. The heir to the earldom he is a Frenchified fop. The daughter of the Alderman merchant sits apart sulking and listening to the compliments of the lawyer Silvertongue, whilst she exhibits the emotions of her lower social class. It is an interesting literary aside that Hogarth uses such names as a part of the satire – the captions to each engraving compliment the narrative, just as Fielding in Joseph Andrews employed mocking names as Lady Booby and Mrs Slipslop, as well as an indication of Hogarth’s influence on Charles Dickens. Thus the name Squanderfield epitomises a family that “…has turned its back on the administration of its country estates and opted for a luxurious life in a city house…” (Craske, M. 1997). In this picture Hogarth is equating French style with the gay amoral life of the great houses of London’s West End. Thus there are many easy to read clues in this picture and the whole series. Indeed the “…perceived difference between Dutch and French Naturalism counterpoints the drama of the Marriage series.” (Bindman, D. 1998b).

Hogarth scene IV

Figure 8Marriage a la Mode. Scene I. The Marriage Contract.

Scene II [see Figure 9] is called After the Marriage and is the famous scene, shortly after the wedding, of disillusion and weariness. It is an interior setting derived from an Arlington Street mansion in London. (Gaunt, W. 1967). The whole scene is a restrained mockery of contemporary decorative taste and style and where the marriage itself “… is seen to dissolve amid a sea of luxurious imported or foreign style products. The French style furniture and clothing of the couple’s fashionable home become the stage-props around which their relationship declines.” (Craske, M. 1997). A fantasy Rococo clock hangs on the wall above the dissolute Earl whilst chinoiserie adorns the mantelpiece alongside a renovated antique bust. All of those present and providing service are foreign. Again this indicates that throughout the series there is an “… insistent connection between the taste for foreign art and affectation and immorality.” (Bindman, D. 1998b).

after the marriage

Figure 9.  Marriage a la Mode.  Scene II. After the Marriage.

Scene III, the Visit to the Quack Doctor, occurs at a time when the young Earl of Squanderfield and his wife are now completely estranged. The dissipated earl has gone to a quack physician seeking a cure for a venereal malady — an affliction either transmitted to or received from the girl in his company. The doctor is the Dr Misaubin from the earlier Harlot’s Progress. He is also known as Monsieur Pillule and is receiving them in his St Martin’s Lane premises.The decor is one that gives the impression of spurious scientific research — a sorcerers cavern replete with a panoply of articles of magic. This is indicated by the miscellany of objects of superstition within the scene and reinforces the sense of debasement and degradation to which the reprobate Earl has fallen. Again, the motif of a spurious transaction seen in the first scene — The Marriage Contract – is self-evident. The theme is still a current one.

Scene IV [see Figure 10] is The Countess’s Morning Levee where she is seen at her own diversions. Esconced in her morning boudoir whilst a French hairdresser places curlers in her hair. The background music is played by foreign musicians, inclusing a German flautist and an Italian castrati warbling along beside them. All of these types Hogarth heartily disliked. Again, the scene is full of significant details that include a collection of trumpery ornaments, a homed statue of Actaeon, a copy of Corregio’s Jupiter and /o adds to the voluptuousness of the scene, whilst the Countess reads the latest French novel. All in all Hogarth is accenting the atmosphere of hedonistic and dissolute pursuit. This is exemplified by the manner in which the lascivious Silvertongue reclines near her, “… indolently and insolently at ease…” (Gaunt, W. 1967) as he attentively listens to her plans for her costume for the evening’s masked ball. The Earl is present, hair in curlers and foppish as ever, as he looks sourly across at his wife and the attentive Silvertongue. Hogarth hints at an undercurrent of the Countess’s own precarious relationships and introduces an air of foreboding, of impending tragedy beneath the seeming gaiety of the levee.


Figure 10. Marriage a la Mode. Scene IV. The Countess’s Morning Levee.

Scene V [see Figure 11] is the Death of the Earl which, with Scene VI, brings the whole series to a climax with its drama of death and suicide. The Earl’s death scene captures an instantaneous impression of a moment in time. The Countess and her lover, the ubiquitous Silvertongue, have been surprised by the enraged Earl and in the ensuing sword fight he is fatally wounded. Amidst this tragedy the comic escape by Silvertongue is shown by his retreat through a window — leaving his clothes scattered on the floor of the room of assignation after the masked ball. The motif is more complex than one of `do as you would be done by’ because the Countess rings her hands in horror as the landlord and the local Watch burst into the room. The room is bleak and sombre and Hogarth uses light to stress, with definite sharpness, the figures and the significant decorations. A fanciful portrait of Moll Flanders is thrown carelessly over a painting — a Judgement of Solomon. Again the scene is painted in a way to convey that the Countess was involved in a shady relationship but for Hogarth this was no justification for the Earl’s philanderings. There is a combination of the comic, the tragic, and the moral in this picture — and the story is not over yet.

Marriage scene V

Figure 11. Marriage a la ModeScene V. Death of the Earl.

Scene VI [see Figure 12] is the Death of the Countess that shows the Countess having taken poison in response to the news that her lover has been tried and executed. This is not ‘ails well that ends well’, this is ‘reap what you sow’ where she has returned to her fathers house — an old-fashioned abode in the City near the Thames with its view of Old London Bridge through the casement window. Again the taste of the merchant for artists of the Dutch and Flemish Schools adorn the walls. His house indicates a frugal way of life with its simple mid-day meal — the remains of a pig’s head are being surreptitiously snatched by the dog. This in itself is reminiscent of scenes from Jan Steen paintings. A frail and sickly child is held up to its dead mother in a futile gesture by an old nurse maid. Nearby an apothocary holds the poor idiot servant who had been sent to procure the laudanum for the suicide as if the innocent too must pay for the follies of their masters. The doctor himself, having nothing further to contribute to the situation, departs the scene whilst the dour father removes his daughters wedding ring — another futile gesture but one which brings down the final curtain on the tragedy.

Marriage scene VI

Figure 12. Marriage a la Mode. Scene VI.  Death of the Countess.

Throughout the series of Marriage-a-la-Mode one sees copies of Old Masters that represent the taste of the connoisseurs against whom Hogarth railed. These are counterpoised with the Dutch paintings used to describe the dour life, and assumed taste, of the merchant class. Hogarth has described a human tragedy that arose out of a marriage of convenience not just of the old Earl’s greed but also the ambition of a City merchant to ally his family with the aristocracy. Hence the narrative is a complex psychological drama couched in terms of a ‘comedy of manners’

4.0 Summary and conclusions

His series are indeed pictorial ripostes and, as such, historical because they are sequential narrative paintings. With regard to Hogarth we have to view his work in terms of its content. We cannot reduce the art of painting to some few techniques of certain artists, for to do so would destroy the very insights which art alone can, and Hogarth did, provide. The Marriage-a-la-Mode series illustrates that Hogarth created an intentional ambiguity between ideas that were different but linked. This was a salient feature of his comic history painting. In the Marriage-a-la-Mode series Hogarth was declaring his view that such marriages were becoming more frequent where”… the degeneration of the private institution of the family is made an emblem of a broader malaise in public life.” (Craske, M. 1997). None of Hogarth’s were represented in a personal manner which makes him far more than a mere caricuturist. In this sense Hogarth was in fact impersonal, even dispassionate. Thus Hogartk:whese Analysis of Beauty (1753), aackwhieh was developed to prove that the English could be as theoretical as the French had shown him an aesthetic theorist in his own right, was thus “… capable of demonstrating that his own comic painting had been a variant of sublimity while that of the caricaturists was merely a form of scurrility.” (Jarrett, D. 1976).

Hogarth’s work revealed his cruel power of observation coupled with the simple, if even naïve, belief that humour could reform abuses. This is perhaps the concept that satire can raise social and political consciousness. However, does satire or comedy act as a spur to action, or does it, via humour defuse a situation or event? In other words operate eventually to create the opposite. Whatever, Hogarth was no political pamphleteer and this may shed light on his conflict with John Wilkes. Hogarth was inspired by 17th century satirical writing, though Henry Fielding regarded him also as a source of his own inspiration, and “…scourged the customs of British Society in several series of pictures…” (Bazin, G. 1996). Hogarth therefore used his work as pictorial ripostes against what he perceived as a social malaise, the “…domination of immorality and foolishness in his world.” (Bindman, D. 1998b).

Hogarth was more than a ‘comic history painter and certainly not a caricaturist. He developed in his book The Analysis of Beauty (1753) an aesthetic called the tine of Beauty’ incorporated into his thesis that painting had to be considered from the viewpoint of visual effect. Hogarth’s art is characterised by variety and the serpentine line — his ‘line of beauty’ — shown on his palette in his The Painter and his Pug of 1745 [see Figure 13]


Figure 13The Painter and his Pug (1745).

William Hogarth was the first great native painter of the English School who supplied a large number of his wealthy middle class demand with a varied and remarkable output of work. This output included his narrative pictures, narrative series, stage scenes, moralities, and small conversation pieces. His portrait groups and individual portraits show he was no flatterer of monarchs or landed gentry. Hogarth’s fame rested upon his series in which he expressed the harsh morality of his age with sharpness, candour and humour. Hogarth created his stories without reference to the classical or the demands of the cognoscenti. His portraits are admirable with a strong colour sense and a direct, free handling of paint, with a lively and delightful brushwork. His paintings had a light feathery lightness of the Rococo despite his gnarled views concerning continental art and French taste. His art is lively too in the Rococo manner — the serpentine line guides us unerringly round and through a picture forcing us to chase the story through the comedy, past the motifs and the accoutrements and on, right to the bitter end — just as he intended us to do in Marriage-a-la-Mode and the Rake’s Progress. Despite his later melancholy Hogarth did reach the people, did popularise art, did establish an art with an English identity. He died in Chiswick on October 26th, 1764, and on his monument is written an epitaph by his friend, the actor David Garrick.

5.0 References

Bazin, G. Baroque and Rococo. Thames & Hudson, London.

Bindman, D. (1998a). Dictionary of British Art. Thames & Hudson, London.

Bindman, D. (1998b). Hogarth. Thames & Hudson, London.

Cork, R. (1997). The Patients Charter. Review of the Hogarth Exhibition. Tate

Gallery. The Times Magazine, 15th of March.

Craske, M. (1997). Art in Europe 1700-1830. OUP, Oxford.

Fielding, H. (1960). Preface to Joseph Andrews. Signet Classic, NY. First published in 1742.

Fielding, H. (1994). To the Honourable George Lyttleton.’ Preface to Tom Jones. Penguin. First published 1748.

Gaunt, W. (1967). Hogarth. Faber & Faber, London.

Godfrey R. (1998a). Contribution Gillray in Bindman, D. (1998a).

Godfrey, R. (1998b). Contribution Rowlandson in Bindman, D. (1998a).

Godfrey, R. (1998c). Contribution Caricature in Bindman, D. (1998a).

Jarrett, D. (1976). The Ingenious Mr Hogarth. Michael Joseph. London.

Levey, M. (1992). Rococo to Revolution. Thames & Hudson, London.

Lucie-Smith, E. (1996). Dictionary of Art Terms. Thames & Hudson, London.

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