William Hogarth is arguably the most inventive, creative, and influential visual artist of the eighteenth century. He was apprenticed to a goldsmith but began engraving in the 1720s. He attended St. Martin's Lane Academy in London. While himself not a particularly good draughtsman, he strongly supported the need for academic training in art and later promoted another academy in St. Martin's Lane which was the main forerunner of the Royal Academy. He began painting small groups and conversation pieces and by 1729, when he married the daughter of Sir James Thornhill, aroused serious interest among fellow artists.
The Beggar's Opera (Tate Gallery) was perhaps the most successful of his early works and provided a transition from portraits to his best known works, the moralities. Hogarth said that he "commenced panter of small conversation pieces, from twelve to fifteen inches high. This having novelty, succeeded for a few years . . . I therefore turned my thoughts to a still more novel mode, viz. painting and engraving modern moral subjects, a field not broken up in any country or any age . . . I therefore wished to compose pictures on canvas, similar to representations on the stage; . . . I have endeavored to treat my subjects as a dramatic writer; my picture is my stage, and men and women are my players, who by means of certain actions and gestures, are to exhibit a dumb show."
The first of these moral conversation series was Harlot's Progress, based on the downfall of a country girl at the hands of wicked Londoners. The original paintings (1731/2) were destroyed by fire, but the remarkably popular series lived on through engravings made from them in 1732. Thanks to their enormous popularity, these printed were freely pirated. This led Hogarth to fight for the passage of a Copyright Act in 1735.
The Rake's Progress (1735) is exhibited in the Sir John Soane Collection in London, a marvellous site for eighteenth-century studies. The Marriage a la Mode series (1743-5) is in the National Gallery, and the Election is in the Soane Collection.
While some of Hogarth's works exhibit influences of his French contemporaries, he remained fiercely anti-French for most of his life. His aversion to all things French did not lessen when together with Hayman he was arrested as a spy in Calais for drawing the city fortifications. This arrest is celebrated in his picture O the Roast Beef of Old England (Calais Gate) (1748) in the National Gallery.
Today Hogarth's fame rests mainly on his moral conversation pieces and their engravings, which have survived prolifically through the use of plates refurbished well into the nineteenth century. One portrait has great significance for the history of British painting, that of Captain Coram (1740). This portrait was painted for the Foundling Hospital founded by Coram and later governed by Hogarth himself. Hogarth persuaded a number of prominent artists, including Hayman and Highmore, to contribute historical paintings to be exhibited in the Foundling Hospital. The public showing of these paintings to raise funds for the hospital anticipates the formal establishment of the Royal Academy later in the century.
Hogarth wrote one significant work of aesthetics, The Analysis of Beauty (1753) in which he defines his "line of beauty" shown on the painter's pallet in the self portrait below.
Painter and His Pug (1745)
O the Roast Beef of Old England (1748)
Enthusiasm Delineated (1762)