IMMEDIATELY after his elopement with Jane Thornhill, twenty and very lovely,
Hogarth put to practical test his ideas of “composing pictures on canvas simi
lar to representations on the stage”; and in 1731 A Harlot’s Progress burst
This, the first of his social dramas, was received with instanta
neous applause, the only dissenters being the imitators of the Black Masters.
The people did not pause to consider the artistic pretensions of the sequence,
but they acclaimed vociferously the dramatic representation.
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revived the oldest and most appealing form of art, that of the connected nar
rative, which had been lost to painting since the early Italians; and the British,
destitute of real art, welcomed his social fables as wholeheartedly as the
Italians had welcomed the religious fables of Giotto.
Pleased with himself, but not unmindful of the flaws in the work, Hogart~c, “
in 1735, presented The Rake’s Progress, a picture drama unfolding in eight
scenes the career of a spendthrift. Young Tom Rakewell comes into his in-
heritance, is surrounded by fashionable parasites, revels, is arrested for debt,
marries a hideous old widow for her money, gambles, is thrown into prison,
and dies in Bedlam-a morality for any age.
In Scene III, an orgy is enacted.
A woman caresses the young rake with one hand and steals his possessions with
the other; a harpy undresses for a dance; while a drunken confederate in the
background sets fire to a map of the world; and across the table an angry
wench spits at another who has snatched up a knife.
The scene, without a superfluous stroke or detail, is a masterpiece of paint
ing. The story is present, but with no cheap sentiment of repentance, and no
concessions to sobbing parable.
In the freshness, the variety, and the organic
oneness of this series, Hogarth has not been excelled by any painter. His figures
never seem to be striking attitudes; they are all combatants, all necessary to
the action, and they transmit the action
so perfectly as to create the illusion
of living characters involved in realistic difficulties. Because these picture
dramas are so plausible and convincing, the artist has been accused of taking
his compositions ready-made from leal life.
No one else ever found such orig
inal combinations of attitudes in real life-they are Hogarth’s umque pos
session, and they contain the mind and art of the man who made them.