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Hogarth in love and at Tate Britain

In his late twenties Willliam Hogarth (1697-1764) was painting portraits of families, and he was bored. As is often the case, boredom was a mask for something else: He just didn't want to paint people he didn't like.

One night Hogarth went to the theatre to see John Gay’s Beggar's Opera, a rousing depiction of London’s underworld. He went back to make sketches, turned the sketches into paintings, and had an immediate success. He had created a visual style perfectly suited to his eye for vivacious detail and his satirical streak. He was about to become the first visual artist who was also a social critic.

In 1732 Hogarth released the series of engravings and paintings called A Harlot’s Progress, which included a narrative, intriguingly recognizable London scenes, and a moral ending. (The poor harlot dies.) The series had the compressed appeal of a violent movie preview, and was so popular that Hogarth was forced to fight publishers who were pirating his prints. In 1735 Parliament passed “Hogarth’s Act” to protect the copyright of visual artists, and Hogarth released A Rake’s Progress.

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The rake ends his life in Bedlam.

Over the course of his career, Hogarth engraved more than 200 plates, each one bristling with caricature and drawn with zest. He was also painting. Some were deliciously rambunctious scenic works, like the hullabaloo depicted below. Others were portraits.

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The March to Finchley, 1749-1750, oil on canvas, Thomas Coram Foundation for Children. Hogarth contributed paintings and money to his friend Thomas Coram's home for foundlings. This painting's theme was not, perhaps, an obvious choice for a home for boys. Then again, maybe it was.

The portraits have a quite different spirit. In one of them it seems obvious that Hogarth cared for his sitter, and even loved her. This is his portrait of Mary Edwards, now in the Frick Collection.

Mary is lovely, with beautiful, intelligent eyes and lovely smiling lips. She is sitting by a half-opened scroll in a tropical red dress and patting a dog whose eager look makes me think she took him on long rides. Mary was Hogarth's friend, and had been since 1733, when he painted her young son bouncing in his cradle.

Here is the painting at the Frick in New York. Using the zoom you can wander close to Hogarth's brushwork and read the words on the scroll, which derive from Addison’s Cato, a play that inspired Brits in America to fight for their rights. Mary, who had repudiated a dissipated husband who threatened their child, also loved liberty:

Remember, Englishmen, the Laws and the Rights.
The generous plan of Power delivered down
From age to age by your renown’ed Forefathers. . .
Do thou, great Liberty, inspire their Souls!

Looking at Mary's painting made me wish that Hogarth had painted other portraits as beautiful as this. Or, since it comes to the same thing, that he had cared as much about his other sitters. Mary died in 1743, a year after this painting was finished.

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Self-Portrait with Pug-Dog, 1745, oil on canvas, Tate Britain

Hogarth wrote about the importance of the S curve, visible on his palette and in the lines of his self-portrait. Painfully for him, other painters tended to dismiss his art. They shouldn't have.

Tate Britain's Hogarth exhibition runs from 7th February – 29th April 2007.

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