FOGG EXHIBITION EXAMINES PRINTMAKER WILLIAM HOGARTH'S TREATMENT OF EXECUTION
Cambridge, MA - March 1999 - William Hogarth (1697-1764) is one of England's greatest printmakers who satirized his country's moral condition. The exhibition Death by Hogarth, on display at the Fogg Art Museum from May 8 through July 18, 1999, will examine Hogarth's prints that address the three implications the word execution-as performance, as death sentenced on official order, and as the process of following a plan through to its natural end-with an emphasis on images related to hanging. Most of the approximately fifty prints to be displayed will come from the collection of Suzanne and Gerald Labiner and others will be loaned from collections throughout Harvard University and are rarely exhibited. Comparative prints by other artists will also be included.
Death by Hogarth is organized by Elizabeth Kathleen Mitchell, 1997-1999 Lynn and Philip A. Straus Intern, Print Department, and is supported with funds from the John M. Rosenfield Teaching Exhibition Fund. The Curatorial Internship Program at the Art Museums is designed to broaden the experience of persons embarking on professional and scholarly careers in art history who are considering the museum profession. Mitchell's essay and catalogue for the exhibition will be published in a Harvard University Art Museums Bulletin.
In early modern England public execution was as popular an amusement as pleasure gardens, fairs and theater extravaganzas. Art, performance and capital punishment blended irreverently in grisly castigation spectacles staged northwest of London at the three-sided gallows known as Tyburn. Hogarth fleshed out numerous print narratives with references to criminal culture and the melodramatic rituals that accompanied executions. Yet, while other creative persons reacted against the harsh legal environment by romanticizing insurgence and portraying a sympathetic fascination with the condemned criminal, Hogarth's prints present execution as one of many unfortunate worldly ends earned by a life of dishonesty.
The 1724 etching A Just View of the British Stage exhibits how the three definitions of execution tangle and overlap in Hogarth's narrative prints. Hogarth collapses the realms of the executioner and the actor to cast well-known theater managers as criminals who should hang for offending the public with pandering programs. The image derides the men and a trend in drama to depict in plays the lives of notorious criminals.
Many of the prints in the exhibition deal with the drama directly surrounding the scaffold. In The Idle Prentice Executed at Tyburn, 1747, Hogarth features riotous drunks, print hawkers and scrappers instead of the condemned man. He exposes the underbelly of the event as a free-for-all which enticed whores and pickpockets to do business. The Reward of Cruelty, 1751 (Plate IV from The Four Stages of Cruelty), after Hogarth, depicts the dissection of a recently hanged criminal. Before the passage of the Murder Act in 1752 some condemned people sold their bodies to surgeons in advance of their own execution as a last effort to earn money for their family or to buy presentable clothes in which to hang. Hogarth's print, without wholly sympathizing with the corpse, casts doubt on the morals of the indifferent gentlemen who paid admission to attend the dissection.
Hogarth also deals specifically with female deviance in prints such as Sarah Malcolm and A Harlot's Progress (Plate IV), both of 1732. In 1732 Sarah Malcolm was hanged for the robbery and vicious murder of three women; the sensational crime gained the young woman tremendous notoriety. Hogarth sketched Malcolm inside her Newgate jail cell with the intent of printing a portrait of Malcolm to sell before her execution. He claimed to read infinite evil in her facial features, yet depicted her as a strong and attractive woman and not a deranged virago. In Plate IV of A Harlot's Progress Hogarth displays that he is not above making a pun on the sentence of "labor" that the pregnant subject is serving in Brideswell Prison. The harlot may have "pleaded her belly," or proved that she was with child by the time of her trial to avoid capital punishment, if only temporarily.
The Harvard University Art Museums consists of the Fogg Art Museum (founded in 1891, opened in 1895), the Busch-Reisinger Museum (founded in 1902, now housed in Werner Otto Hall), and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum (opened in 1985). The Straus Center for Conservation is located in the Fogg. Through their collections, the Art Museums serve Harvard University as a catalyst for the instruction and scholarship, as a training ground for future academic art historians and museum professionals, and as a general resource for the greater-Boston area and all parts of the world.
The collections of the Art Museums consist of more than 150,000 objects in all media, with works ranging from antiquity to the present and from Europe, North America, North Africa, the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, and East Asia. Developed with an emphasis on their value for teaching and research, the collections comprise a unique resource in terms of breadth and quality, and are one of the finest university art collections in the world.
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