Helping Make History More Interesting: William Hogarth

Few have heard of William Hogarth, an engraver in 18th century England. He was known for his very detailed pictures of subjects ranging from the usual portraits to most significantly, his satirical drawings and cartoon strips providing commentary on social issues of his day, many of which are timeless and easily relatable to today. He was born in London in 1697 to a lower middle class family. He was apprenticed in engraving where he learned his art work in the many engravings he did. His father was once imprisoned for his debts, so it is theorized that is where Hogarth was exposed to the harsher realities he would later draw. Uniquely too, was that Hogarth intended his works to be mass produced, so the lower classes could also appreciate his works, especially his moral stories. These are some of my favorite of his works:

  1. A Harlot’s Progress


Image result for a harlot's progress

This is what could be considered like a comic strip today. It is composed of six scenes chronologically telling the story of a young girl who is tricked into a life of prostitution and ends up in jail and eventually succumbing to STDs at the age of only 23. I like the analysis given about it, as in each picture, there are symbolic details that foreshadow what will happen next as well as explaining the scene more. An example would be the first image of her being lured into prostitution, such as the indifferent clergyman and the toppling pans his horse is tipping foreshadowing her imminent “fall” into disgrace, as well as a dead goose signifying her death. Personally, my favorite image is the jail scene. I like the man in the stocks! Love the caption above him, “Better to work than stand thus”.  I find this work significant as it rings true today as well. Girls are still lured into the sex trade with a promise of a better life, but often end up just like the girl in this story; imprisoned or suffering from poverty and venereal disease. The story’s moral message rings true today, cautioning young women not to fall into that trap and become exploited as the next victim. It also shows the tragedy of those who befall such a sad fate, and the injustice of those who would trap those girls into that life that still is just as significant today as it was then. I am inspired to make a modern retelling of that sad tale.

 2. The Four Stages of Cruelty 

Image result for the four stages of cruelty

Hogarth was known to love animals, and was horrified at the many cruel things people would to to them, such as tormenting dogs and cats, torturing birds, and beating horses. He drew this story to illustrate how cruelty to animals often leads to cruelty towards one’s fellow man and how cruelty in the end is punished. The story depicts “stages” of cruelty, the first being the torturing of animals, then progressing to beating a horse so badly it cannot stand and breaks a leg, to murdering a woman in cold blood. The perpetrator is ultimately hanged then dissected, his cruelty now being turned on him, as a “taste of his own medicine” so to speak. I think this piece is also relevant to today, as many studies show that cruelty to animals is a serious sign of psychopathy and leads to cruelty towards humans too. Also, disappointingly, people still treat animals this way, thinking it’s funny and not caring about the poor creature’s suffering. I can relate to Hogarth’s outrage and wish to stop such injustice. I think he was ahead of his time in is concern for animals, and I find it interesting too, that he wrote himself, it was supposed to be understood by “men of the lowest rank” so to educate them in the errors of their ways. One can see his hurt in his work, as it lacks the more humorous elements of other works. I think he felt it was a somber message to get out there though, one that still must be said today as young people continue to torment innocent creatures.

3. The March of the Guards to Finchley

Image result for the march to finchley

This painting is much lighter in nature than the deep moralizing works listed above, but guardsit does contain it’s share of commentary on indisciplined soldiers! Hogarth wanted to present it to the king who took great offense at his soldiers being mocked! I guess the truth hurts :) I like the exquisite detail of all the soldier’s misbehavior and chaos they attracted, especially with the women ;) Some funny details include a drunk soldier to the far right too drunk to stand, yet refuses water given by a woman in favor of more gin, and two women fighting over a grenadier in the center of the picture! My most favorite detail though: a man in the far left urinating against the tavern “pained by his venereal infection”.



4. The Five Orders of Periwigs

On a much lighter note, many of his works were intended to be quite humorous and satirical! One of my very favorites is called “The Five Orders of Periwigs”. This one makes fun of the ridiculous wigs of the era! I also love that it is an intellectual satire, as it also mocks the 5 orders of classical architecture as well! I also can’t help but laugh at the minute detail he put into “measuring” those wigs also making fun of architectural drawings! By being so analytical with the wigs, he takes making fun of them beyond just saying they’re ridiculous, but doing so at an intellectual level by being overly analytical. It can be a bit heavy to digest for the modern viewer to get the humor at first, but I couldn’t help but look up to and laugh at the burning satire it truly is! Ouch :) …

5. (Bonus) Satire on False Perspective

Just for funsies:)  This picture was used for art students by Hogarth as a study on perspective and what NOT to do! The challenge: Can you spot the errors in artistic perspective in this drawing? Wikipedia spotted 22! :)


I think William Hogarth is quite an interesting artist, and person! His social commentaries ring true today, and his humor is still funny through the ages! I like the poem his friend wrote for his grave:

“Farewell great Painter of Mankind
Who reach’d the noblest point of Art
Whose pictur’d Morals charm the Mind
And through the Eye correct the Heart.
If Genius fire thee, Reader, stay,
If Nature touch thee, drop a Tear:
If neither move thee, turn away,
For Hogarth’s honour’d dust lies here.” 

About History Is Interesting

I like ancient and medieval history!
This entry was posted in Art and History, Early Modern History, Helping Make History More Interesting, Humor, Opinion Piece. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Helping Make History More Interesting: William Hogarth

  1. carol says:

    Very interesting and descriptive. The engravings are amazingly detailed.

    Liked by 1 person

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