Review: ‘William Hogarth’s Surprising Cosmopolitanism’

Posted in books, reviews by Editor on March 14, 2010

Recently posted at H-Albion:

Robin Simon, Hogarth, France and British Art (London: Greenhill Books/Lionel Leventhal, 2007), 313 pages, ISBN 978-0-9554063-0-0, $90.

Reviewed by Douglas Fordham, Assistant Professor of Art History, University of Virginia; published on H-Albion, January 2010.

Since his death in 1764, William Hogarth has become a protean figurehead for a great many impulses in British culture. John Trusler’s “Hogarth Moralized” (1768) was an early and overt instance of the ends to which Hogarth’s life and oeuvre could be put, and Hogarth continues to be, if not moralized, then at least channeled into a disparate series of voices and roles. While the “New Art History” of the past two decades has turned its pragmatic sights on Hogarth the calculating businessman, it has also tended to reduce the artist to a somewhat bland spokesman for a polite and commercial age.[1] In the writings of David Solkin and David Bindman, in particular, Hogarth has been cast as a cultural latitudinarian, mainstream in his preoccupations and eager to please. To the extent that Hogarth’s works reveal contradictions, unpleasant truths, or impolite expressions they tend to be viewed as apt reflections of an anxious age. This view of the artist offered a calculated response to Ronald Paulson’s towering contribution to Hogarth scholarship, beginning in the 1970s, which emphasized the artist’s antinomian impulses and his empathetic eye for the sub-cultural. If Hogarth merges seamlessly into hegemonic discourses in the former, he activates a dizzying array of allusions and a daunting density of meaning in the voluminous writings of Paulson.[2] While each of these accounts, and a great many others, have transformed our understanding of the artist and his age, readers are ultimately tasked with choosing which Hogarth they prefer. For it hardly seems possible for one individual to embody so many contrary impulses.

Robin Simon makes a welcome contribution to this debate in “Hogarth, France and British Art,” where he offers a surprisingly fresh iteration of the artist and his milieu. Simon’s Hogarth is cosmopolitan in his understanding of European Old Masters and contemporary French art, sophisticated in his handling of oil paints, and a friend to “Tory wits” and Whig politicians alike. Hogarth emerges in Simon’s account as an intellectually serious artist and a deeply gifted painter who almost single-handedly elevated British art to a Continental level of refinement. In his desire to translate French theories and standards into a uniquely English vernacular, “Hogarth demands to be ranked with the literary giants of the ‘Augustan’ age in England” (p. 8). Simon shares with Paulson a propensity for making analogies between English literature and art, and some of Simon’s most compelling observations entail comparisons between Hogarth’s paintings and the English stage. . . .

The paradox latent in Simon’s approach is that Hogarth already had an English visual vernacular at his disposal in London printshops, on painted street signs, and in countless urban spectacles. While Simon deliberately challenges the “determinedly insular” (p. 3) quality of recent Hogarth scholarship, at what cost does Hogarth the cosmopolitan painter become divested from Hogarth the graphic satirist as Diana Donald and Mark Hallett, for example, have presented him?[3] This is a question of synthesis, however, rather than a legitimate critique of Simon’s stated aims. On its own terms, Simon’s book deserves to be read by everyone with an interest in British culture in the first half of the eighteenth century, and it dramatically improves our understanding of Anglo-French relations. It also manages to present us with yet another incarnation of the artist from which to choose. This is a significant accomplishment in itself, and if this new Hogarth sits uncomfortably alongside his forebearers, then it can only encourage us to look anew at Hogarth’s astonishingly diverse and provocative career.

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