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
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
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.