William Hogarth was an English painter and printmaker from the 18th century whom, in many ways, revolutionized the business of art making. Although he was a successful portrait painter, with many commissions from wealthy aristocrats and from the emerging merchant class, he was also a part of the circle of artists and writers who were commentators on the social conditions of the time. In order to reach a larger, less elite audience, Hogarth needed a vehicle for communication that was less expensive, and easily marketed. He was one of the earliest and most successful of “reproductive print makers” whose engravings after their own paintings launched the popularity of these works with the working and middle classes in England, and eventually spread to the continent of Europe.
Two of Hogarth’s earliest and best-known series of engravings are included in Morality Tales, an exhibition of works from the MMFA’s collection of European master prints. Following the examples of novelists such as Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe, Hogarth used narrative as a way to chart the existence and life experiences of members of the poor, working, and middle classes in English society. These engravings were based on paintings the artist made, and then engraved and published in the early 1730s. The first set of 6 plates titled A Harlot’s Progress was published in 1732. The series visually charts the life of a young woman from the countryside, Moll Hackabout, her fate representing that of many young country girls who arrived in the metropolis of London, and were then preyed upon by unscrupulous characters who exploited their youth and naiveté. The success of this series led Hogarth to quickly create a sequel published in 1835, A Rake’s Progress, charting the downfall of a young heir who squanders his inheritance, falls into poverty, and ultimately descends into madness.
Hogarth’s meticulously detailed compositions capture the London of his day. The clothing appropriate to each character’s station, the conveyances that they used to move about, the buildings, shop signs, and the general character of the streets themselves are all based upon his own experience of life in London in that era. Both the public and private spaces reflect the way that Englishmen of every class lived in the urban environment at that time, and the challenges of life in the 18th century for rich and poor alike.
Above: William Hogarth (English, 1697–1764), A Harlot’s Progress, Plate 3, 1732, from the series, A Harlot’s Progress, etching and engraving on laid paper, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of the Weil Print Endowment in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Adolph Weil, Sr., 2018.5.6.3
Hogarth was one of the earliest and most successful of “reproductive print makers” whose engravings after their own paintings launched the popularity of these works with the working and middle classes in England, and eventually spread to the continent of Europe.
Organized by the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama.
Support for this exhibition was provided in part by the Alabama State Council on the Arts.