Johns Hopkins Magazine -- November 2000
Johns Hopkins 
     Magazine Home


Ronald Paulson, the world's expert on matters Hogarthian, has generated a profoundly new portrait of the 18th-century artist who found Beauty in all the "wrong" places.
H U M A N I T I E S    A N D    T H E    A R T S

A Scholar's Progress
By Dale Keiger
Photograph by David Owen Hawxhurst

When Ronald Paulson was 15 years old, he received a book titled 500 Years of Art and Illustration. It was one of those omnibus surveys that can captivate a young mind for hours on end, and Paulson recalls especially a small section of it. He says, "There were four or five pages of Hogarth prints that I was much taken with." Little did he know how long that fascination would endure.

William Hogarth, the 18th-century English painter and engraver, has been the nexus of four decades of scholarly work by Paulson, the Mayer Professor of Humanities at Hopkins and the world's primary scholar on matters Hogarthian. When Paulson examines Jonathan Swift, he comes back to Hogarth. When he reads Henry Fielding, he comes back to Hogarth. When he ponders the development of aesthetics as a philosophical discourse, he comes back to Hogarth. "I've come to believe that he's a central figure of English culture in the 18th century," Paulson says. He's certainly been the central figure in Paulson's intellectual life.

In 1993, Paulson published the third and concluding volume of Hogarth (Rutgers University Press, 1991-93) his 1,455-page biography of the artist. Twenty-two years before that, he had published another, shorter biography titled Hogarth: His Life, Art, and Times. Already an English scholar, Paulson trained himself as an art historian to better appreciate Hogarth's work. And Paulson has found that in his other books, such as The Beautiful, Novel, and Strange: Aesthetics and Heterodoxy (Johns Hopkins, 1996), Don Quixote in England: The Aesthetics of Laughter (Johns Hopkins, 1998), and The Life of Henry Fielding (Blackwell, 2000), the index entry for "Hogarth" is inevitably long.

Until Paulson set to work, Hogarth had been consigned to a back shelf, as an English portrait painter of no great significance and an engraver with a taste for the common life observed on the streets of London. When, as a graduate student in the 1950s, Paulson tried to find copies of Hogarth's engravings in the Yale University library, he discovered that the only reproductions were of bad 18th-century re-engravings. Paulson himself did not begin looking at the artist with great expectations. "When I started this I was diffident about his work, partly because everyone else was diffident about him," he recalls. But the more Paulson studied the artist and his milieu, the higher his estimation became. "Hogarth the good old boy is the old picture," he says. "The Hogarth I came up with is someone intellectually on the level with Swift and Richardson and Fielding."

The third plate of A Rake's Progress." Hogarth turned away from copying classical sculptures and protrayed instead the robust daily life around him in London.

When he began serious study of Hogarth in the 1960s, Paulson encountered resistance. He had found that there was no catalog of the artist's graphic works, so he set out to write one. He submitted it to the University of Illinois Press, but a reader for the publisher responded, "I can imagine doing this for Rembrandt or Dürer, but not Hogarth. I might want to have the book myself, but I can see no reason for publishing it." So Paulson took the manuscript to Yale, which brought it out in 1965.

His fascination with Hogarth led to Hogarth: His Life, Art, and Times (Yale, 1971). Then he spent a good bit of the next 20 years rethinking the artist and publishing much revisionary material, until he finally produced the three-volume Hogarth, which Paulson considers less of a standard biography and more of "an old-fashioned 'Life-and-Works' and 'Life-and-Times'" history.

For the biography, Paulson spent a year in England poring over archival material: parish birth records, tax records, correspondence (what there was of it--Hogarth apparently wasn't much of a letter writer). He went page-by-page through every newspaper published in London from 1680 to the 1780s. "My eyeballs became calibrated until certain names just lit up," he recalls. The newspapers were vital for, among other things, dating Hogarth's engravings.

Though he was a fluent painter of oils, Hogarth's end product was his engravings, many of them satirical and narrative, like A Harlot's Progress and A Rake's Progress. He would paint a new work, then offer copies to the public for subscription. If you wanted to buy a copy, you subscribed by paying half the asking price before Hogarth had completed the engraving of the new painting, and half when you picked up the finished product. The artist got the word out to the public through the newspapers. "He was a great advertiser," Paulson says. "He advertised everything." Each time he found an ad in a London paper, Paulson could date another engraving.

In A Harlot's Progress, an innocent girl named Hackabout comes to the big town (top) and falls into the cruel hands of the Bawd Mother Needham. The innocent maiden's downfall ensues, and by the sixth and final picture, Hackabout is dead.

Studying advertisements led Paulson to other discoveries. For example, he happened across an advertisement, published in 1708 in the Daily Courant, for a nostrum of some kind, with which to treat children for "the GRIPES in Young Children, and prevents FITS." The advertiser was Hogarth's mother, but the address puzzled Paulson. He had believed that Hogarth's father, Richard, was running a coffee house at the time, a coffee house that specialized in Latin conversation. The business was located in St. John's Gate, and the Hogarth family lived in a room there. But the advertisement read, "Sold only By Mrs. Anne Hogarth next Door to the Ship in Black and White Court, Old Bailey." The address was part of the Fleet Prison. Apparently, Richard's coffee house had failed and he had been imprisoned for his debts; from somewhere he had found enough money to live outside the actual prison, but within an area known as "the Rules," in a sort of house arrest with his family. No one had known this about Hogarth's family until Paulson noted Mrs. Hogarth's advertisement.

"Almost every day I made a discovery," Paulson says. He sometimes found records that their owners didn't know they had. For example, he asked the venerable insurance company that had insured the Hogarths if he could see their records. "They said, 'We have nothing.' But they let me go down into the vault, which was like the sewers of Paris. On my first day, I found everything on Hogarth and his family."

Hogarth was born in London in 1697, the only surviving son (there were two daughters) of Richard, a minor classical scholar and schoolmaster, and Anne. Young William took a lively interest in the street life outside the Hogarths' door, and amused himself by sketching the characters he saw. At age 15, he became an apprentice to a silversmith, but found the work unsatisfying. By age 23, he was on his own, trying to make his way as a copper engraver, illustrator, and painter.

The three volumes generated by Paulson's exhaustive research document virtually all that is known about Hogarth. Paulson wryly observes, "I can't think of too many people reading all of them." Peruse the many pages and you'll learn that Hogarth recalled that in school he "drew the alphabet with great ease." That in 1730 or '31, he accepted a commission for a portrait from a Mr. Sarmond, after accepting commissions from Sir Robert Pye and John Thomson. That in the 1740s Hogarth was said to be making �12 per day from etchings. Still, Paulson says, there are aspects of the artist's life that remain murky. "I would like to know more about his married life. I could find nothing that indicated he'd ever gone to church, though his wife certainly did." And, as Paulson writes in Vol. I of Hogarth, it remains a mystery who first turned the young Londoner toward art.

Hogarth turned away from veneration of the past. To him, the beautiful woman was not a Grecian statue, but living and breathing, out there to be discovered on the streets of London.
The massive biography generated a profoundly new portrait of its subject. Paulson's Hogarth emerges as a painter, engraver, satirist, blasphemer, entrepreneur, and aesthetician. Furthermore, he was front and center at the creation of a new form of expression rooted in the present and reflective of the common hurly-burly of the London streets. Artwork became commercialized, something no longer just exhibited in churches and the homes of connoisseurs, but viewed in shopwindows and taverns and public buildings. Old hierarchies broke down, and new forms flourished: the ballad opera, the bourgeois tragedy, and especially, a new form of fiction called the novel.

When Hogarth began his career as an artist in the 1720s, the reigning artistic orthodoxy mandated that painters and graphic artists look back in time for their models. Treatises urged painters to imitate the Old Masters. Classical sculptures were regarded as the ideal, and art students drew them, copying the art of centuries past instead of drawing each other or what they saw in the life before them. Anthony Ashley Cooper, third earl of Shaftesbury and one of the seminal writers in the emerging philosophical discipline of aesthetics, posited an ideal of harmony and unity that he labeled Beauty, epitomized by the classical male nudes of the ancient Greeks. The ideal viewer of such works was the disinterested connoisseur, who had nothing to gain by appreciating art but simply understood the virtue inherent in recognizing and viewing Beauty. This spectator was a collector or patron, by definition upper class.

Along comes Hogarth, son of a failed classical scholar and coffee shop owner, entranced by the street life of fairs and theater and bawdy houses that had first captivated him as a boy, shaped by his father's bankruptcy and time in debtors' prison, impatient with his apprenticeship to a silversmith, philosophically disinclined to accept the orthodoxy of religion, politics, or art. He executed his share of commissioned portraits like other painters of his time, but he also embarked on what he called "modern moral subjects": sequences, or "progresses," of illustrations that narrated the downfall of a central figure. His most famous "moral subjects" were A Harlot's Progress and A Rake's Progress (which was the basis of the Stravinsky opera of the same name, with libretto by W. H. Auden). In these sequences of vigorous images, Hogarth presented moral narratives animated by vividly rendered characters who did not exactly conform to Shaftesbury's ideal of Beauty. In A Harlot's Progress, an innocent girl named Hackabout comes to the big town and falls into the cruel hands of the bawd Mother Needham, whereupon the innocent maiden's downfall ensues. By the sixth and final picture, Hackabout is dead. The images are full of leering, lecherous men, tawdry settings, and street life rendered realistically enough to be smelled, heard, and felt.

To Paulson's eye, there is much more going on here than a mere moral fable. He sees an accomplished parodist at work, too, and a subversive. He says, "In A Harlot's Progress, every single plate but one is based on Dürer's images of the story of the Virgin and the story of the Passion." Hogarth is subverting the religious establishment and the orthodox belief in an immanent God who intervenes in the lives of people and produces miracles. Hogarth was a Deist, a believer in a God who created the universe but takes no direct hand in the lives of his creations.

"It's a demystification," Paulson says of Harlot. "It's saying, 'If you're looking for a savior, you won't find him in heaven or the Holy Communion table. The only savior we have is the prostitute who gives herself for redemption.'"

Hogarth frequently parodied orthodox organized religion and its iconographic images. He parodied the Trinity. In an engraving titled Cunicularii, or the Wise Men of Godliman in Consultation, he poked fun at the Magi. Blasphemy was not a minor matter in 18th-century England. The writer Thomas Woolston was prosecuted for it, and Hogarth placed a portrait of Woolston in the background of one plate of A Harlot's Progress. The Blasphemy Act under which the writer was prosecuted did not mention images, but Hogarth was still running a risk. Says Paulson, "It's almost as if he's saying, 'Look what I can do and get away with it.'"

Hogarth may have been saved by the fact that most people didn't fully realize what he was up to. Someone who did was the writer Henry Fielding. Paulson doesn't know when the men first met, but by the time Hogarth executed Harlot, Fielding was the sensation of the London stage, writing a series of successful comedies. In March 1730 or 1731, Hogarth designed a frontispiece for an edition of Fielding's play The Tragedy of Tragedies. The two men worked off each other, pushing forward new forms of art that portrayed day-to-day life in all its unheroic splendor, looking out at the realistic present instead of back at an idealized past.

This subscription ticket for A Rake's Progress was a receipt for partial payment toward the series of engravings.

Paulson earlier this year published The Life of Henry Fielding, part of a series of critical biographies issued by Blackwell Publishers. In Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones, and other works, Fielding developed what he called the "comic epic in prose," inspired by Cervantes's Don Quixote and influenced by Hogarth's satiric, naturalistic portrayals of London's denizens (art that Fielding described as "comic history painting"). Just as Hogarth rejected the orthodoxy of imitating the Old Masters and hewing to a classical ideal, Fielding did not retell myth or rework idealized history in his writing. He portrayed with comic verve and a sharply satirical eye contemporary English society. He embraced, through the literary form we now call the novel, a new aesthetic of the Novel.

The essayist Joseph Addison had advanced the idea of the Novel, New, or Uncommon as an aesthetic ideal, that which gives the mind a new idea and fills "the soul with an agreeable Surprise." Addison promoted the "Pleasures of the Imagination," and his concept, exemplified by Hogarth's engravings, turned away from veneration and imitation of the past and promoted the imaginative exploration of the present, with the goal of turning up something new. Hogarth embraced the idea. Says Paulson, "He wanted to create a modern English art."

Hogarth the intellectual set down his own aesthetic theory in his treatise The Analysis of Beauty. Paulson examines, in The Beautiful, Novel, and Strange, the development of Hogarth's ideas and the new aesthetics that arose from his work and the work of Fielding et al. Hogarth rejected Shaftesbury's ideal of the classical Greek male in favor of the living, breathing female. As Hogarth said, "Who but a bigot, even to the antiques, will say that he has not seen faces and necks, hands and arms in living women, that even the Grecian Venus doth but coarsely imitate." And Hogarth embraced Addison's idea of the Novel. The beautiful woman was not a Grecian statue, but living and breathing, out there to be discovered by the artist on the streets of London.

Near the end of the last volume of Hogarth, Paulson quotes an obituary published upon the artist's death in 1764: "In him were happily united the utmost force of human genius, an incomparable understanding, an inflexible integrity, and a most benevolent heart. ...His works will continue to be held in the highest estimation, so long as sense, genius and virtue, shall remain amongst us; and whilst the tender feelings of humanity can be affected by the vices and follies of mankind." That "highest estimation" ebbed for two centuries. Ronald Paulson hopes he has restored it.

Dale Keiger is a senior writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine.