William Hogarth's Sigismunda in Focus

Tate Gallery, 24 July - 4 November 2000

A fascinating failure

Despite Tate Britain's irritatingly glib presentation of the work, Richard Dorment discovers an illuminating story behind one of Hogarth's least successful paintings

WHY are practitioners of the new art history so unwilling to address the subject of aesthetic quality? Although the organiser of Tate Britain's In Focus exhibition on William Hogarth's Sigismunda, Dr Marcia Pointon, has a lot to say in the catalogue about female sexual desire and the evils of luxury consumption, at no point does she discuss the picture as a work of art. If she did, she would have to start by admitting that it isn't very good, at least not if you use aesthetic criteria to judge the awkward composition, the unconvincing anatomy, the uncertain depiction of space, the overworked paint surface, the dark tonality and the lugubrious subject.

This is not my subjective judgment, but what you might call execration by consensus. The patron who commissioned the picture in 1758 refused to accept it; Hogarth's contemporaries mocked it; the artist himself withdrew it from exhibition and then repainted large areas of the canvas. What is more, plans to engrave it were dropped; at Hogarth's death it remained unsold, and it has never been popular with the public.

Hogarth painted Sigismunda Mourning Over the Heart of Gusicardo, Her Murdered Husband late in his career, for a new and colossally rich patron, Sir Richard Grosvenor. Impressed by The Lady's Last Stake, one of Hogarth's high-spirited sendups of contemporary manners and morals, Grosvenor must have expected him to produce a modern moral subject in the same lightly ribald vein.

But he made the mistake of leaving the subject of the new picture to the artist, who chose a grim tale from Boccaccio's Decameron concerning Ghismonda, daughter of King Tancred, who falls in love with Guiscardo, a page at her father's court. Enraged by this mésalliance, the cruel king has the boy killed and his heart sent to his daughter in a golden goblet. Hogarth shows the distraught princess the moment after she has received the grisly gift, but before she swallows the poison that will end her life.

Anatomically, Hogarth's Sigismunda is a mess. Listing dangerously towards the lefthand side of the picture, her impossibly long right arm rests on her casket of jewels, but doesn't quite connect to the head it is supposed to be supporting. Eyes swollen with tears, lips parted and brow furrowed, Sigismunda's appearance is meant to elicit our sympathy. But the effect of grief on a plain face is only to make it even plainer.

Likewise, as she morbidly draws the bloody heart to her breast, we should feel a frisson of horror. But Hogarth's ability to depict space is so tentative that it is impossible to tell how far away from her body the vessel that holds the heart is, so we find ourselves worrying that the goblet is simply tipping over. The placement of a strategic hand and an artfully floating veil disguises Hogarth's ineptitude in attaching Sigismunda's head and neck to her shoulders. Unintentionally, he turns her into the stuff of comedy, an ageing actress in an overheated melodrama.

But a failed painting can make a fascinating exhibition, and the really interesting question is why an artist of genius painted such a terrible picture. What drew Hogarth to this particular subject? Why did he use a relatively old and (compared with the heroines in his other paintings) not particularly pretty model? What went wrong with the drawing and composition? Since Pointon couldn't care less, I'll try to suggest a few answers.

The place to start is with Hogarth's artistic training. Born in 1697, Hogarth entered the new academy of art in St Martin's Lane in 1720. Here he developed a system of visual mnemonics by which he would fix the image that he wished to remember in his mind's eye, then draw or paint it later in his studio. This way of working implies a considerable element of self-instruction, because it dispensed with the traditional academic practice of learning to draw by copying from plaster casts and from Old Masters.

Indeed, Hogarth noisily rejected the teaching methods imposed in the previous century by Charles LeBrun at the Academie Royale in Paris, which he identified with the codification and embalming of art in sets of rules and regulations. But what Hogarth was against was academic classicism, not history painting itself, for in the later 1720s he attended the Covent Garden art school founded by a man he idolised, Sir James Thornhill, a painter trained in the tradition of the high Italian baroque.

THIS is the important part. In 1729, like Guiscardo, Hogarth eloped, with Thornhill's daughter Jane – and it is she, Mrs Hogarth, who sat for the figure of Sigismunda 20 years later. Here may lie one reason for Hogarth's attraction to an obscure subject which, he said, he had long wished to paint: it represented the tragic consequences of an illicit union not unlike his own with Jane. But Thornhill was no Tancred. He was soon reconciled to his new son-inlaw, and was to instill in Hogarth the ambition to follow his own success by becoming a history painter.

But as a painter of what he called "the grand stile of history'', Hogarth was only fairly successful. Whereas his artistic education enabled him to paint portraits and genre subjects with an easy fluency, when it came to painting historical or religious subjects his lack of academic training left him without the ability to organise space, gesture and dramatic expression in a dignified and rational way.

Sigismunda should be seen as the last in a series of failed history paintings, which include the murals at St Bartholomew's hospital in London, those in Lincoln's Inn Hall and the altarpiece for St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol -- works that one contemporary called "more than could be expected of [Hogarth]''
Hogarth's portraits and genre paintings stand for all that was informal and anticlassical, unstuffy and fresh in English art. In his history paintings, however, he tended to emulate the stately baroque of Poussin or Carlo Maratta. Sigismunda is a pastiche in which we can detect elements of the Bolognese classicists Guido Reni and Domenichino, as well as the Florentine baroque painter Francesco Furini. In it, he is unsure of himself, and works against the grain to prove a point and to show that he was capable of equalling the Old Masters, whose works commanded such high prices among British collectors.

Now none of this interests Pointon. The author of Strategies for Showing: Women, Possession and Representation in English Visual Culture 1665-1800 brings to her interpretation of the picture a deliriously inspired combination of Marxist and feminist art theory, culminating in her revelation that the string of pearls that spills from Sigismunda's jewel box is "semen, which is here seen seeping away into the shadows, an. . . emblem of wasteful expenditure''.

What visitors to Tate Britain will make of the surrounding exhibition, which aims to contextualise the picture, is anybody's guess: bits of jewellery, prints and books are shown alongside the paintings, but in vitrines so badly lit that you literally can't see what is in them.