Yale Bulletin and Calendar
News Stories

January 27 - February 3, 1997
Volume 25, Number 18

Hogarth's artistic fascinations with "The Beggar's Opera" is focus of new exhibit

At the climax of John Gay's "The Beggar's Opera," the captured highwayman Macheath stands between the two women who claim he is their husband, and he is forced to choose between them while they appeal to their fathers -- the jailer and the thief-taker -- to save him from the gallows.

So inspired was artist William Hogarth by that scene, which occurs in Act III of the satiric opera, that he painted five versions of the dramatic moment in the four years after "The Beggar's Opera" premiered in 1728.

Two of those versions, as well as a third that has long been attributed to Hogarth, form the centerpiece of the exhibit "'Among the Whores and Thieves': William Hogarth and 'The Beggar's Opera,'" which opens on Saturday, Feb. 1 at the Yale Center for British Art. Also on display are 40 prints, books and paintings offering insights into the social, political, theatrical and musical significance of the mingling of lowlife and high art in "The Beggar's Opera."

The exhibit is being jointly presented by the British Art Center and Yale's Lewis Walpole Library in Farmington, Connecticut, which donated the Hogarth-attributed "Beggar's Opera" painting to the show, as well as 19 prints from its extensive collection of works by the 18th-century artist. The two other "Beggar's Opera" paintings by Hogarth in the exhibit come from the collections of the British Art Center and the National Gallery of Art in London.

"The Beggar's Opera" played to enthusiastic audiences when it first opened in London. Unlike the popular Italian operas of the time, which offered heroic visions of history and mythology and featured florid arias, Gay's work was set in the underworld of thieves and prostitutes and its songs were simple. In addition to poking fun at the conventions and excesses of the operatic traditions of the time, "The Beggar's Opera" satirized the government of Prime Minister Robert Walpole and the burgeoning commercial society of England. Hogarth, too, is known for his satiric portraits of 18th-century society, including "The Harlot's Progress," "A Rake's Progress" and "Marriage a la Mode."

"'Among the Whores and Thieves': William Hogarth and 'The Beggar's Opera'" grew out of a graduate seminar taught at Yale by David Bindman, professor of the history of art at University College London. Professor Bindman will be giving this year's Lewis Walpole Library Lecture on Feb. 5; see Visiting on Campus. An illustrated catalogue with an introduction by Professor Bindman and eight essays by the seminar participants will be on sale in the British Art Center's museum shop.

In conjunction with the opening of the exhibit, there will be a concert featuring music from "The Beggar's Opera" and other operatic productions of the period on Sunday, Feb. 2, at 2 p.m. in the lecture hall of the British Art Center. The 1953 film adaptation of "The Beggar's Opera," starring Sir Laurence Olivier as Macheath, will be shown at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb 1. Both events are free and open to the public. Other related events will be announced at a later date.

The Yale Center for British Art is located at 1080 Chapel St. It is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. For further information, call 432-2800.