In 1732 William Hogarth published a set of engravings based on a series of paintings he had recently completed entitled The Harlot’s Progress. He had originally painted a single picture showing a prostitute in her room, counting her takings. He then hit on the idea of expanding the story by adding paintings, each one illustrating a particular stage in the narrative. His original picture became the third in a series of six paintings which together constituted a new concept, being the first of his ‘modern moral narratives’, which used the downfall of a particular social type (in this case of a prostitute) to ram home a moral lesson but, as importantly, to highlight hypocrisy and to satirise contemporary society. The engravings were an immediate success bringing Hogarth fame throughout Europe.
Keen to capitalise on this triumph, he immediately started work on The Rake’s Progress charting the fortunes of Tom Rakewell as he squanders an inheritance, descending, inevitably it would seem, into dissipation, penury and eventual madness. This time Hogarth encapsulated the descent in eight scenes and here we join Tom on his third step down the ladder to Bedlam. He is in the Rose Tavern, a well-known haunt of prostitutes, two of whom have been ministering to his needs but are now taking advantage of his obvious drunkenness to fleece him of his watch and anything else they can get their hands on. One of their compatriots is taking off her stockings in readiness for her part in the continuing entertainment. A man has just entered the room carrying a pewter plate and a candle — accessories which she will use when she dances naked on the table.
After the debauchery of the Rose Tavern we follow Tom into the gambling house, see him as he is arrested for debt and is forced to marry an elderly crone for her money, eventually following him into the prison cell and the madhouse. The locations for these scenes are recognisable (he is arrested in St James’s) and indeed a number of the faces in the cacophonous backdrops to Tom’s exploits were identifiable as contemporary minor celebrities.
Hogarth was not interested in happy endings. He painted a number of striking portraits, some very moving, like the multiple portrait of his servants, but aside from these, his best work is his coruscating satires of human failings and social pretensions. And he had personal experience of life at the bottom of the pile. His father, a Latin teacher, was consigned to debtor’s prison after his attempts to publish a dictionary ended in failure. In Hogarth’s day this resulted in the family accompanying the offender into his place of incarceration.
Somewhat ironically, the success he enjoyed with his moral narratives unfortunately resulted in the dashing of his own pretensions as a portraitist; he became pigeonholed, known as the originator of the progresses and was not taken seriously when trying to move on to other things.
1733 Jean Siméon Chardin: La Fontaine, Stockholm, Nationalmuseum
1734 Giambattista Tiepolo: Jupiter and Danae, Stockholm, Nationalmuseum
1735 Canaletto: The Arrival of the French Ambassador, St Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum