ART REVIEW: “Art review Hogarth Cruelty and Humor”
“Hogarth: Cruelty and Humor” at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York samples the satirical engravings of 18th century British artist William Hogarth. It features some 20 works, mostly drawn from the Morgan's own collection but also including works on loan from the Royal Collection Trust.
William Hogarth was born in London in 1697. He was the son of a schoolmaster who was also an unsuccessful classicist. The rejection of his father's works by booksellers and other classicists, left a lasting anti-establishment impression on Hogarth.
After completing an apprenticeship to a silversmith, Hogarth enrolled in a drawing school. It followed the traditional method of having prospective artists make copies from casts of ancient statues. Unhappy with this approach, Hogarth resolved to teach himself and concentrated on observing and memorizing details of everyday life.
Hogarth was well-acquainted with the boisterous side of London in the early 18th century. In search of pleasure, he explored its taverns, bawdy houses, fairs and theaters. He found himself drawn to the coffee houses and the intellectuals who frequented them.
These experiences came to serve him well as he began to make paintings and prints depicting everyday life. Over time, these developed into series of humorous images lampooning various political and social issues of the day.
Hogarth also tried history and genre painting. However, these were largely unsuccessful and resulted in much criticism. He was somewhat more successful with portraiture but his subjects were mostly middle class people rather than the upper echelon of society. This failure may have been due in part to enemies he had made with his own criticisms of the establishment. In any event, it caused much resentment.
Perhaps spurred onward by this resentment, Hogarth continued to produce art that was social commentary. Prints of his various series were eagerly anticipated and purchased by the general public. It is how he is primarily remembered today.
The exhibition focuses on two of Hogarth's series both produced in 1751.
“Beer Street and Gin Lane” speaks to the dangers of drinking gin. In his image of Beer Lane, he shows the virtues of drinking English beer in a street scene with contented people living in prosperous surroundings. The only one who is discontent is the pawnbroker whose shop has had to close due to a lack of business.
In contrast, in “Gin Lane” a drunken mother neglects her child, people are diseased, others are pawning their possessions to buy drink and someone has hung himself.
It is a somewhat heavy-handed comparison but apparently it did generate support for the Gin Act and other reforms.
“The Stages of Cruelty” addresses the increase in human cruelty in London taking place during this time. In hopes of wide dissemination among the lower classes, Hogarth used woodblock printing for this series so that they could be sold at a lower price than if he had printed them in the normal way.
In the first of the four images, the protagonist Tom Nero is a boy who along with his friends spends his time torturing dogs and small animals.
By the second image, he has moved on and become a hackney cab driver beating his horse. Around him are other scenes of cruelty such as a sheep being clubed, an overloaded donkey, bear-baiting and a child run over by a beer wagon.
In the third image, a group of farmers have apprehended Tom after he murdered his lover, slitting her throat, wrist and finger. Jewelry is scattered about suggesting that the pair have also robbed the girl's employer.
The final image in the series, Tom who has apparently been hung for his acts, is now being dissected by a group of doctors as an anatomy lesson. This is the reward of cruelty.
The exhibition does not just show the final prints that made up each series but also preparatory drawings and intermediate prints. We see that Hogarth changed his ideas as he worked on both series. He added characters and eliminated some features. Thus, the works did not spring fully formed from his mind but rather evolved over time.
Hogarth was a good draftsman. The images convey the atmosphere of 18th century London and he was good at depicting the human element in his characters. The images are also crowded with supporting detail that rewards the viewer for spending time to analyze these images. However, telling a story is the primary mission of these images and thus they straddle the border between illustration and fine art. Social commentary was the mission.
In addition to the two series, the exhibition includes a self-portrait as well as a sheet commenting on the South Sea Bubble scandal and his final print “The Bathos,” illustrating his concern that his attempts to elevate British art may have been in vain.
Above: Hogarth, Self-portrait.
Below: Hogarth, The First Stage of Cruelty.
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Art review - Morgan Library and Museum - Hogarth: Cruelty and Humor