Second period : The eighteenth century
William Hogarth (London. 1697-1764) is no doubt one of the major English artists. Indeed many a critic considers his work as corresponding to the decisive departure from what appeared to be a set rule. His paintings mark the rise of a new and typically British form of art. England was now able to break loose from the influence of Italy and to assert its singularity. This new capacity was probably heralded by the artist's decision not to mimic anymore. As a matter of fact, he was convinced that imitation could lead nowhere in that it did not make it possible for the artist to gain insight into what he was actually copying. The model had to give way to the memory of it, a process which consisted in "deconstructing" the existing forms with a view to creating something new. The artist relied on his "technical memory" to shun the pitfalls of mimicry. Hogarth's experience as a silver-plate engraver probably enabled him to distance himself from the ongoing trend. He went as far as to despise the former masters and to "blaspheme against " Raphaël, Corregio and Michelangelo. The artistry of these painters, he contended, was outweighed by that of Nature.
The belief in the pre-eminence of Nature is a major characteristic of the "Englishness" of the forthcoming painters. Instead of looking for inspiration in the great Renaissance paintings William Hogarth will therefore quite logically turn to daily life and his own experience. Unlike most of his contemporaries he did not paint for money but out of a sincere urge to represent those he found interesting or simply worth painting. For instance he painted heads of his servants in 1782 (unfinished). Though many of his pieces actually represent scenes from his own world, his desire to construct a coherent whole was more acute than the mere willingness to tell fables. All his paintings convey a moralising message and no category is spared. Contrary to the fashionable works which he considered as mere illustrations, opera in paint, his were concerned with "modern moral subjects (...) similar to representations on the stage (...) subjects which both entertain and improve the mind." (Hogarth). In this respect, Hogarth did anticipate Richardson and Pamela and one may learn more about London life from his works than from any other source.
His paintings are endowed with evident qualities. Considering them as nothing but historical documents about eighteenth century England would indeed prove erroneous. As a matter of fact, they have a dramatic intensity that gets something of the mood of the time across to the viewer. Hogarth probably harboured a heartfelt indignation at the inconsistencies of his time which he was bent on communicating. This was probably due to the five years he spent, from 15 to 20, in a prison because of the debts his family had run up. Only the enacting of a more humane law had made it possible for him to regain freedom. Such experiences no doubt harden the soul or at least make one sensitive to the grotesque aspects of life, to the improvements the society badly needs. "I therefore turned my thoughts to a still more novel mode, viz. painting modern moral subjects, a field not broken up in any country or in any age... I wished to compose pictures on canvas, similar to the representations on the stage ; and farther hope that they will be tried by the same test and criticised by the same criterion... In these compositions, those subjects which will both entertain and improve the mind, bid fair to be of the greatest utility, and must therefore be entitled to rank in the highest class;" We took leave to underline what we consider to be fundamental statements in this assertion by William Hogarth, namely that art must serve a didactic purpose.
In that respect he distinguished himself from the very popular trend which consisted in representing groups or families, and to which he had lent himself (The picture of Daniel Graham's children for example. 1742). Such paintings were called conversation-pieces : "The essence of such pictures, Ellis Waterhouse says, is that they represent a number of persons, a family or a group of friends, with a certain degree of informality and at ease among themselves, not stiffly posed for the benefit of the painter. They may be represented in their home or in their gardens and the figures should be small in scale, generally some twelve to fifteen inches high. The eighteenth century applied the term 'a conversation' to all informal groups, whether small in scale or on the size of life, and whether the figures were portraits or productions of the painter's, but today the term is restricted in general use to small-scale portrait groups." Literature provides an interesting example of that craze which the novelist derides. In The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) by Oliver Goldsmith, the main character's family have decided (the protagonist protests that he had no hand in it) to get their picture drawn by a limner.
"We (...) came to an unanimous resolution of being drawn together, in one large historical family piece. This would be cheaper, since one frame would serve for all, and it would be extremely more genteel ; for all families of any taste were now drawn in the same manner. As we did not immediately recollect an historical subject to hit us, we were contented each with being drawn as independent historical figures. My wife desired to be represented as Venus, and the painter was desired not to be too frugal of his diamonds in her stomacher and hair. Her two little ones were to be as Cupids by her side, while I, in my gown and band, was to present her with my books on the Whistonian controversy. Olivia would be drawn as an Amazon, sitting upon a bank of flowers, dressed in a green joseph, richly laced with gold, and a whip in her hand. Sophia was to be a shepherdess, with as many sheep as the painter could put in for nothing; and Moses was to be drest out with an hat and white feather. Our taste so much pleased the 'Squire, that he insisted on being put in as one of the family in the character of Alexander the Great, at Olivia's feet. This was considered by us all as an indication of his desire to be introduced into the family, nor could we refuse his request. The painter was therefore set to work, and as he wrought with assiduity and expedition, in less than four days the whole was completed. The piece was large, and it must be owned he did not spare his colours; for which my wife gave him great encomiums. We were all perfectly satisfied with his performance; but an unfortunate circumstance had not occurred till the picture was finished, which now struck us with dismay. It was so large that we had no place in the house to fix it. How we all came to disregard so material a point is inconceivable; but certain it is, we had been all greatly remiss. The picture, therefore, in a most mortifying manner, against the kitchen wall, where the canvas was stretched and painted, much too large to be got through any of the doors, and the jest of all our neighbours. One compared it to Robinson Crusoe's long-boat, too large to be removed; another thought it more resembled a reel in a bottle; some wondered how it could be got out, but still more were amazed how it ever got in." (Chapter 16)
The whole thing is ludicrous of course. It is ridiculous both by reason of its size and its extremely confused topic. Such a mythological subject was the noblest of pictorial genres and hardly appropriate to the status of Mr. Primrose's family. Moreover, his wife is not a suitable figure for Venus, while as the pagan goddess of love receiving a treatise on monogamy from a churchman, she is placed in a definitely absurd position. The husband's main flaw is no doubt intellectual pride and his stance accounts for this exceptionable (and endearing) aspect of his character. One must keep it in mind that the decision to have their portrait made stems from a desire to assert their superiority on their neighbours :
"My wife and daughters happening to return a visit to neighbour Flamborough's, found that family had lately got their picture drawn by a limner, who travelled the country, and took likenesses for fifteen shillings a head. As this family and ours had long a sort of rivalry in point of taste, our spirit took the alarm at this stolen march upon us, and notwithstanding all I could say, and I said much, it was resolved that we should have our pictures done too. (...) our next deliberation was to shew the superiority of our taste in the attitudes."
The attitude of the Primroses accounts, though ludicrously, for that of many British families in the eighteenth century. As for Oliver Goldsmith's approach, it may be paralleled with the look William Hogarth used to cast on the society and the world he was steeped in. The writer proof-read for Richardson and dabbled in translations (into French) but his having to drudge probably induced him to think seriously about literature and to question man's allegedly innate benevolence. He wrote to his brother-in-law about his poverty and his frustrated ambition. In his novel, the picaresque journey becomes a Christian pilgrimage in which the novelist aims to denounce the foolishness of pride. Goldsmith is never boring anyway since he always manages to entertain the readers. He continuously plays with genre and this attitude is designed to keep us amused and him from being dogmatic over serious issues ; which enables him to be at once absurd and profound. Such a phenomenon applies to Hogarth's paintings since they yoke entertainment with moral advancement.
Eighteenth century artists were very much interested in, even obsessed with the problem of moral virtue. Most of their works were therefore aimed to guide people and help them along. This likemindedness makes it rather easy to draw parallels between paintings and novels : one of the scenes from The Harlot's Progress (The Arrival from the country) by Hogarth for example is reminiscent of Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders (1722) whose innocence contrasts with the prevalent corruption and is highlighted in the following excerpt :
This set the old gentlewoman a-laughing at me, as you may be sure it would. 'Well, madam, forsooth,' says she, gibing at me, 'you would be a gentlewoman; and pray how will you come to be a gentlewoman? What ! will you do it by your fingers' ends ?" "Yes," says I again, very innocently. "Why, what can you earn?" says she; "what can you get at your work?" "Threepence," said I, "when I spin, and fourpence when I work plain work." "Alas ! poor gentlewoman," said she again, laughing, "what will that do for thee?" "It will keep me," says I, "if you will let me live with you." And this I said in such a poor petitioning tone, that it made the poor woman's heart yearn to me, as she told me afterwards. "But," says she, "that will not keep you and buy you clothes too; and who must buy the gentlewoman clothes? says she, and smiled all the time at me. "I will work harder, then," says I, "and you shall have it al." "Poor child! It won't keep you," says she, "it will hardly keep you in victuals." "Then I will have no victuals," says I, again very innocently; "let me but live with you." "Why, can you live without victuals?" says she. "Yes," again says I, very much like a child, you may be sure, and still I cried heartily."
The writer who best illustrates Hogarth's stance is no doubt Henry Fielding. Moreover, the former is mentioned repeatedly and eulogized in the latter's novel Joseph Andrews (1742). In Book one the narrator alludes to his friend Hogarth whose art he praises in his stride :
You have seen the faces, in the eighteen-penny gallery, when through the trap-door, to soft or no musick, Mr. Bridgewater, Mr. William Mills, or some other of ghostly appearance, hath ascended with a face all pale with powder, and a shirt all bloody with ribbons ; but from none of them, nor from Phidias, or Praxiteles, if they should return to life __ no, not from the inimitable pencil of my friend Hogarth, could you receive such an idea of surprise, as would have entered in at your eyes, had they beheld the Lady Booby, when those last words issued out from the lips of Joseph. (Chapter 8)
It is noteworthy that the novelist resorts to art with a view to enabling the readers to picture the scene, instead of referring to daily life. Phidias and Praxiteles were the most illustrious representatives of ancient Greek art. Nevertheless, according to the narrator, Hogarth seemed to outshine the sculptors in that he was endowed with an unparalleled capacity to instil life into his characters. Fielding made a point of enhancing the virtues of his friend Hogarth whom he presented as the most reliable artist ever. The encomium is carried one step further when the novelist draws a parallel between the achievements of Mother Nature and Hogarth's paintings :
The gentleman lately arrived discovered a great deal of emotion at the distress of this poor creature, whom he observed not to be fallen into the most compassionate hands. And indeed, if Mrs Tow-Wouse had given no utterance to the sweetness of her temper, nature had taken such pains in her countenance, that Hogarth himself never gave more expression to a picture. (Chapter 14)
The description that follows is quite reminiscent of some pictures by Hogarth. They have a common robustness and a peculiar emphasis on colour which contribute to conjure up a vivid and endearing world.
Her person was short, thin, and crooked. Her forehead projected in the middle, and thence descended in a declivity to te top of her nose, which was sharp and red, and would have hung over her lips, had not nature turned up the end of it. Her lips were two bits of skin, which, whenever she spoke, she drew together in a purse. Her chin was peeked, and at the upper end of that skin, which composed her cheeks, stood two bones, that almost hid a pair of small red eyes. Add to this, a voice most wonderfully adapted to the sentiments it was to convey, being both loud and hoarse.
The writer gives us clues as to what the lady under discussion actually looked like. His technique is pregnant in that it informs us about what she might have been (her nose [...] would have hung over her lips, had not ... ). Therefore the reader remains active and the lady's face seems to consist of a series of superimposed images. Moreover the use of ironical overtones adds to the opacity and to the richness of the literary description. In spite of this obvious pithiness, which is part and parcel of the writer's art, Fielding proposes a qualified approach to the relations between writing and painting.
Now what caricatura is in painting, burlesque is in writing; and in the same manner the comic writer and painter correlate to each other. And Here I shall observe, that as in the former, the painter seems to have the advantage; so it is in the latter infinitely on the side of the writer : for the monstrous is much easier to paint than describe, and the ridiculous to describe than to paint. And tho' perhaps this latter species doth not in either science so strongly affect and agitate the muscles as the others; yet it will be owned, I believe, that a more rational and useful pleasure arises to us from it. He who should call the ingenious Hogarth a burlesque painter, would, in my opinion, do him little honour : for sure it is much easier, much less the subject of admiration, to paint a man with a nose, or any other feature of a preposterous size, or to expose him in some absurd or monstrous attitude, than to express the affections of men on canvas. It has been thought a vast commendation of a painter, to say that his figures seem to breathe,; but surely, it is a much greater and nobler applause, that they appear to think.
The adjective useful is very important : art was meant to serve a purpose and to be useful to the society. The novels were supposed to improve the readers' insight into the ways of the world and the paintings were to help construct a better society. In Joseph Andrews the narrator (Fielding?) was fond of saying : "I declare here once for all, I describe not men, but manners; not an individual, but a species." This no doubt applies to Hogarth's characters too. The device the comic history-painter used to "stage" his paintings was the serpentine line whose virtues he praised in his Analysis of Beauty Written with a View of Fixing the Fluctuating Ideas of Taste (1753). The Arrival from the country from The Harlot's Progress, some of the paintings the Rake's Progress (eight of them. 1732) or the Mariage à la Mode (Four of them. 1743) consist of, are as many examples of the successful resort to this technique. The dramatic dimension of these paintings is enhanced by the sharp contrasts between light and shade. The serpentine line is a recurrent feature as can be noticed in The Orgy from The Rake's Progress and in the opening scene from the Mariage-à-la-mode. The latter evinces the painter's talent as a "stage-manager" and sets the tone of this satiric comedy which is reminiscent of many a scene from Joseph Andrews. The painting is crammed with jarring elements : the old man's self-sufficiency is pointed out, along with the lovers' indifference to each other. The bad taste of his contemporaries was also denounced in some of his paintings : the ridiculous objects on the chimney mantelpiece in the second scene from the Mariage-à-la-Mode or the clusters of paintings against the walls in some other paintings from the same series.
Literature and Painting in England (continued)
Lately I have dealt with the theme of shadows in painting and in literature. In that course I tried to demonstrate that the phenomena under scrutiny (shadows / pictures) were congenial with each other and even that light and colours could, to some extent, be regarded as stemming from the unfathomable world of darkness. I would like now to focus your attention on an aspect of Mimesis (the art of imitation) which fascinated the artists of the Renaissance and still stirs the imagination of many an art lover. In the opening chapter of this course I developed the theme of art as a mirror of life. I made a point of showing that the artist's function does not consist in copying faithfully reality. In other words, the painter or the dramatist is not a mere imitator but a creator. He accounts for his vision of the world and his works are as many revelations of Nature which turn out to teach us much about ourselves. The poet's insight into the mysteries of life mirrors our innermost selves.
Since mirrors reflect an inverted image and since art is paradoxically tuned in to raw reality, the only way for people to have access to themselves happens to be the curved line. Trying to gain insight into oneself boils down to endeavouring to get in touch with the Truth. During the Renaissance, Man was waking up to the prominent place he might occupy in the world and to the deceptive effect a mirror may produce. This approach had of course already been scrutinised by Plato. His analysis hinges on a reappraisal of the place of man in a world where objects are not always told from their image, where the truth may be confused with the image of the truth. The problem of Mimesis may even be regarded as the core of his philosophy since it raises fundamental questions, especially about the subtle differences between appearances and reality. He launches scathing attacks against the creator of images, the imitator whom, he declares, "knows nothing about reality, all he knows is appearances." (The Republic.601,c.) In fact, the Renaissance and Antiquity had many an aspect in common, and especially the fact that Seeing was closely connected with Acting. For the ancient Greek the image was basically deceitful, a cross between unity and multiplicity, what is and what is not. Plato was first to become aware of the complexity inherent in the phenomenon of Mimesis and in the place of Man in this ethereal world where mirroring effects, deceitful appearances and different categories of images abound. Defining Man within the set of relations he entertains with these elements contributes to made the world picture much clearer. The artist ranks third in the three level hierarchy the philosopher establishes. Here is an extract from the demonstration :
There are three sorts of beds. One of them exists in the nature of things, and I think we can say that its creator is God. Otherwise, who could it be ?... No one else, in my opinion. Another one is the object created by the carpenter. Indeed.And the third one is the painter's, isn't it ? I admit. Thus, the painter, the carpenter, God, the three of them are the creators of these three categories of beds. Three, indeed. And God, maybe because he did not want to act differently, maybe because he was forced by some necessity to make only a bed in nature, made the only one which is really a bed. But God has never, and will never, produce two beds of that kind. Why is it so, he asked ? Because if he made two, a third one would occur whose form would be reproduced by the other two, and that very bed would be the real one, not the other two. You are right. Knowing that, I think, and wanting to be the real creator of a real bed, rather than the particular maker of a particular bed, God has created this bed which is unique by nature. It seems so. Shall we name God the natural creator of this object, or anything of that kind ? That will be just, he said, since he has created the nature of this object and that of all the other things. What about the carpenter ? We will call him the bed builder, won't we ? We will. What about the painter ? Shall we call him the builder or the creator of this object ? Not at all. What is he, tell me, as regards the bed ? It seems to me that the best-fitting name for him is that of imitator of what the other two have made. Right. You call Imitator the one who produces something three degrees away from Nature. Definitely, he said. Therefore the tragedy maker, if he is an imitator, will be naturally three degrees away from the king and from the truth. Just like all the other imitators. Quite likely. Now we agree on imitators. But as for the painter, answer the following : does he, in your opinion, try to imitate each one of the things that exist in nature, or what workers build? What workers build, he answered. As they are or as they seem to be. Tell me about this difference. What do you mean ? This : is a bed different from what it is or does he look different whether you look at it from the side, from the front or any other place? Does it apply to the other things ? It does. It looks different but it is in no way different. Now reflect upon this point. Which one of the following two aims does painting propose to achieve as regards objects : to represent what is as it is, or what seems the way it seems ? Is it an imitation of appearance or of reality ? Of appearance. Therefore imitation is a far cry from reality, and if it shapes all the objects, it is, so it seems, because it deals with a small portion of each one of them, which itself is nothing but a shadow.
The Republic, 597,d-598,c.
As you can see the artist is all the more alienated from reality as he can only copy what the worker has built out of God's own creation. In other words he is denied access to the Thing itself, to the first stage in the process of generation. God and the object-maker create, the artist imitates. Moreover, he imitates what he perceives, not what is. Accordingly he is somewhat dangerous and his influence on children and on the ignorant may be hurtful. This argument is called forth in The Sophist but a new aspect is developed which drives it home to the hearer that the painter's activity is basically deceptive : The stranger : Therefore as for the man who professes he can, by a single art, produce all things, we know in fact that he will produce nothing but imitations and homonymous versions of reality. Thanks to his technique as a painter, he will be able, by showing his drawings from a distance to the more innocent young men, to make them believe that he can create the real substance of all that he wants to do. Theetete : No doubt about it. The stranger : In that case, should we not expect language to bear, in the same manner, a technique that will enable us to pour bewitching words into the ears of the young whom a great distance alienates from the truth, to introduce spoken fictions of all things and thus to create the illusion that what they hear is true and that the one who speaks knows everything better than all the others.The Sophist. 234, b.
The painter is a dishonest person who spends his time lying and perverting the viewers ( professes he can... ). He draws upon the imperfections of perception to carry out his task. The device the philosopher alludes to here (Thanks to his technique as a painter ) is of course the use of perspective. You can notice that the demonstration shifts in this extract since the poet (and the sophist) may be included in the process (language / bewitching words / spoken fictions). In The Republic the speakers agree on the idea that the painter is an unreliable person who resorts to tricks and devices to entice the viewers away from the truth. The poet is heartily included in the process :
As for the imitator, will he get to know things thanks to those who use them, will he know whether or not they are beautiful and correct ; or will he come to get a sound opinion on them because he will be obliged to get in contact with the one who knows, and to follow his instructions, as for they way they must be represented ? He will do neither. Therefore the imitator has neither science nor proper opinion concerning the beauty or the defects of the things he imitates. It seems to have neither.