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Satiric and Social Painting
Hogarth, Watteau, and Fragonard
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Hogarth (1697-1764) British
with Pug (1745)
- At 48 years old, Hogarth painted this self-portrait both to hang in his house and to be engraved for the frontispiece for the bound set of his prints. He intended not only to create a likeness, however, but to project an emblematic image of himself as the "comic history painter." Hogarth was nettled over the years at his reputation of being a second-class artist because he began his career as an engraver and continued to publish engravings of his paintings. He was also nettled at being termed a caricaturist, someone who skews the features of people to draw attention to certain symbolic aspects of their appearances. In this self-portrait, Hogarth makes a number of statements about himself and his art. Note the composition. Hogarth has painted himself within another painting, and that painting rests on a pile of books flanked by a painter's palette and a dog.
First, though you cannot read the titles or authors of the books that the portrait rests on, they are
Shakespeare, Milton, and Swift. You may have read some Swift, and you have most likely read some Shakespeare if not Milton. That Hogarth places these books as the foundation of his own image should tell us something about what his values are. Second, in keeping with the tradition that the old master painters were each characterized by animals--Leonardo=lion, Michelangelo= dragon, Titian=ox--Hogarth paints himself with a pug dog. Now while Hogarth owned several pugs, and while they appear in a number of his paintings, to associate himself with a dog may seem odd. Third, Hogarth paints a palette with a curved line across it entitled "the line of beauty and grace." This title would seem to stand against the content of most of Hogarth's famous works, which emphasize satire rather than beauty or grace.
Notice that, while it is usual in portraits such as this for the artist to surround himself with symbolic objects, here the objects are more real than the portrait. The face is a painting within a painting, whereas the books, dog, and palette are actual objects in the still life--they are really there as the painter paints whereas the painter has already painted himself and is copying his own painting. Hogarth may be suggesting that what is important is less the person behind the painter and more the function of the painter as a moral watchdog, a pictorial storyteller, and a guardian of beauty and grace, the best of human qualities. This, then, is not just a picture, not just a representation of physical things. It is a visual representation of ideas as well as a person, of the person's perceived and hoped-for reputation, of the person's values. It connects at least two art forms, literature and painting. It expresses a conservative philosophy--one based on tradition rather than innovation--and morality. It claims an important social function for the artist, not just a mechanical service.
- Marriage A La Mode (1743)
- This series of six paintings was like other similar series by Hogarth--The Rake's Progress and The Harlot's Progress--painted in order to be reproduced in a series of engravings made after it. The pictures making up each of these series are highly moralistic, relating a story of progressive decline ending in death. In this way, they are like a classical tragedy or a Restoration tragedy that is based on the fabulist hypothesis. Also like the literature of this period, the individual pictures in the series are full of symbols and allusions to the main subject matter.
The Marriage Contract
- A marriage has been arranged between the son of Lord Squander, Viscount Squanderfield, and the daughter of a rich city merchant. The betrothed pair, on the left side of the picture, sit in the Earl's house oblivious to each other. The Viscount admires his reflection in a mirror, while the future Viscountess is engaged in conversation with the young lawyer, Silvertongue. In the lower left corner are two dogs chained together, Hogarth's visual metaphor for the marriage being arranged. On the right are the two fathers: the bride's father examines the marriage contract while Lord Squander, seated beneath a canopy, points to a family tree demonstrating his descent from William the Conqueror. Through the window can be seen the new house he is building, for which he has probably run out of money. It is also being built with little regard to the rules of classical architecture. On the wall, among gloomy, violent Old Master paintings, is a pompous and old-fashioned portrait of the Earl in the guise of Jupiter. Note Hogarth's commentary in both cases on the relation of form to content.
Shortly after the Marriage
- The elaborate new clock shows it is after midday, but the Viscountess has evidently just finished breakfast. Scattered about the room are books and papers showing that a card party took place the night before. The Viscount probably did not attend it. He seems to have just returned home, his broken sword discarded on the floor, a woman's lace cap in his pocket. His wife yawns and looks slyly at him. On the left side of the picture the couple's household steward leaves the room, raising his hand in sanctimonious piety; in his pocket is a non-conformist sermon. In the other hand is a bundle of bills and a single receipt, suggesting the state of the household finances. The picture over the chimney piece shows Cupid among the ruins, playing music entitled "O Happy Groves."
The Visit to the Quack Doctor
- This scene takes place in the consulting room of Monsieur de la Pillule. The Viscount has with him a very young girl whose cap resembles the one shown in his pocket in the previous picture. The woman behind them, whose breast is tattooed with the initials FC, indicating her criminal origins, may have procured the girl for the Viscount. The girl, who is evidently distressed, has probably been infected with a venereal disease by the Viscount, who holds out a box of pills to the doctor. The doctor is probably expected to provide the cure for them, and has perhaps already attempted to do so, as there are three boxes of pills in the picture. The woman, who holds a folding razor, seems to be threatening the doctor. The room is full of presentiments of death: the skull on the left, the skeleton and the anatomical figure in the cupboard, and the gibbet-like tripod.
The Countess's Morning Levée
- Because the of the title "countess," we know that her father-in-law, the old Earl, has died. The Countess is shown in the course of dressing for the day. As was the fashion for wealthy, she is being entertained while doing this: by a singer and a company of friends, including the lawyer Silvertongue, with whom she seems to be making an assignation. He holds a ticket for a masquerade, and he points to a picture of one on the screen behind him. On the wall on the left is a portrait of Silvertongue, and since this is the Countess's room, where her husband would be unlikely to come, we can assume that the Countess placed the picture there. In front of the couple is a black servant boy holding a figure of Actæon who, in mythology, was turned into a stag by the goddess Diana after he has discovered her bathing and hunted down and killed by his own hounds. Entertaining while dressing was condemned by some as leading to immorality, and details in the room indicate that the Countess is indeed loose-moraled. Over her hang erotic Old Master paintings, on the sofa is a copy of Le Sopha, a contemporary French novel widely regarded as immoral, and on the floor are invitations to various parties. The singer on the left seems to be an Italian castrato, accompanied by a flautist, a highly fashionable form of musical entertainment at the time (some of you may have seen the film Farinelli).
The Killing of the Earl
- This scene takes place at night. After the masquerade, the Countess and Silvertongue have retired to a bagnio, a sort of no-tell motel where rooms could be taken by illicit couples. They have been caught in a state of undress by the Earl, who has evidently followed them. Silvertongue has stabbed the Earl and can be seen making his escape through the window on the left. Through the door on the right, the night watch are arriving with the man in charge of the bagnio. On the wall behind is a tapestry of the Judgment of Solomon.
The Suicide of the Countess
- The final scene is in the house of the Countess's father. Old London Bridge is visible through the window. Despite the riches that inspired the marriage contract, this scene indicates poverty or miserliness: panes of glass are broken and there is a spider's web. A starving dog is making off with the remains of a plain meal. On the floor is a broadsheet of Silvertongue's speech from the gallows. It may therefore be because of his death rather than the Earl's that the Countess has taken poison. On the right is an apothecary berating an apparently simple-minded servant who has obtained the poison for her. Although the Countess is dying, her father seems most concerned with removing her ring. A female servant has brought the Countess's child to say his farewells to his mother. His leg brace and the bandage on his neck indicate inherited venereal disease.
Antoinne Watteau (1684-1721) French
At the sign of Gersaint (1720)
- The thing I want to point out here is the same sort of thing that enters into Hogarth's self portrait. Gersaint was an art dealer, and this is a sign painted to hang over his shop door. The scene is, of course, of a shop that sells paintings, and the buyers are aristocratic. This is not only a painting of paintings, but of paintings as commodities to be purchased by a certain class of individuals. The painter, by implication, is both an artist and a business person, but his audience is the upper class, the moneyed class, the educated class. The painter must, if he is to be successful, share the education and aesthetic values of that class. But he must also pander, in some ways, to the taste of that class. This painting also stresses meta-art, or art within art. The art is both subject and object. By extension, the artist must also be subjective and objective. He paints the real world, but it is also a created world, changed by his perspective and value system, selective in what it shows and does not show. It represents life, but it is not life. It does more than simply record--it examines and criticizes. In this sense, it is like the drama. And its audience is like the theatre audience. You should also note that in composition it is also like the stage in a theatre.
Embarkation from Cythera (1717)
- This is one of Watteau's most famous paintings. Cythera is the island of love, and the figures in this scene are leaving the island. Notice some of the details, however. Each couple is portrayed in an idealized posture, and the group itself follows that curved line in Hogarth's self-portrait, the line of beauty and grace. The colors and the shapes are lush, and there is a statue of Venus hung with garlands of flowers. This, then, is an idealized portrait of the notion of love. It is idealized both in its composition and in its inclusion of the mythical title and the statue of a mythical goddess. Its figures are, like those in the previous painting, of the upper class. To appreciate the painting, one must have a grasp of classical education and a familiarity with upperclass lifestyle, which includes money, leisure time, free choices, and so on. These things were also requisite to appreciating literature, as you will remember from our discussions about Pope's pastorals and his "Windsor Forest." Nature in those poems is just as idealized as it appears here. And the audience for those poems would not have mistaken ideal nature for real nature any more than the audience of a theatre production would have mistaken a play for real life. All three art forms are intellectual exercises.
Danse Champêtre (1710)
- There are a couple of reasons that I wanted you to see this painting. First of all, it is a pastoral scene that is peopled with characters in pastoral clothes, so it appears to be more realistic, just as Gay's "Shepherd's Week" appears to be more realistic than Pope's pastorals. Watteau here seems to be paying tribute to the simple life as it is really lived. A companion painting in the same style and depicting the same subject is titled La Vraie Gaieté, or "true gaiety," which suggests that the simple country life is the source of true happiness and pleasure, much as Dyer's "Grongar Hill": "Grass and flowers Quiet treads, / On the Meads, and Mountain-heads, / Along with Pleasure, close ally'd, / Ever by each other's side" (lines 152-55).
A second reason I wanted you to see the painting is that it is an imitation of a style of painting practiced by the Dutch at the end of the 17th century. Watteau was, early on in his career, concerned with imitating successful and popular forms. In this sense, he is like both Pope and Gay, for both based their pastorals on successful and popular forms. What may seem like nature here is really artifice. What may seem like realism is really imitation.
Les Fêtes Vénitiennes (1714)
- This painting, like the Embarkation from Cythera is an example of the fête galante, a category of landscape painting created by Watteau. A fête galante is a representation of a gathering of men and women--usually dressed elegantly in shimmering, almost theatrical clothes--in an idealized landscape or fantastic architectural setting. The figures are often in the postures of flirtation, dance, conversation, or music making. Though each aspect of the picture taken by itself might be considered realistic, the combination of aspects gives an imaginary or artificial or dreamlike air--an artist's vision of some kind.
Les Plaisirs du Bal (1715)
- This painting, similar to the previous one in composition, is set in a slightly different context. Where the previous group seemed to be gathered in a landscaped garden in front of a fountain decorated with classical statuary, this group gathers inside an architectural structure of some kind. It is not a ruin. It is an elegant space of ringed marble columns and arches, the walls between them decorated with slender caryatids supporting vases. Beyond the group we see the landscaped garden with a central fountain. To the right and left of the central dancing couple are other couples engaged in conversation or flirtation, and note the figure in white in the left background--a Pierrot, or a stock character from French and Italian pantomime depicting a peasant, an itinerant minstrel and buffoon. In front of him is a harlequin, his counterpart stock character, a maker of mischief and the pierrot's rival in love. Note also the character in the right foreground, a minstrel with a cap and bells sitting in exactly the same position and dressed exactly the same way as a figure on the right in the previous painting. It is hard to tell who are the performers and who are the members of the audience in these paintings, but obviously there is something theatrical about the situation. You may find a correlation here to the relationship between the audience of English Restoration comedy and the actors, and you may also find a correlation between reappearing figures in these paintings and reappearing character types in the comedy or in the pastoral.
Les Comédiens Italiens
- Note the pierrot and the harlequin, now in their natural setting. Or are they? To which real setting do the pierrot and harlequin belong? The comic playwright found them in nature and put them on stage but, in doing so, made them artificial copies of their originals.
Honore Fragonard (1732-1806) French
The Progress of Love is a series or collection of four paintings designed for the walls of one of the two salons in the chateau of Louveciennes, being remodeled for Mme Du Barry, the king's mistress, in the early 1770s. Rather than a sequence, the four seem to be an ensemble that depicts four facets of love. The collection is not original in concept, and it grew out of the tradition of Watteau's fêtes galantes earlier in the century and from the pastoral paintings of François Boucher. Boucher's pastorals were representations of the pantomime theatre, and they were primarily static and bucolic. Fragonard's episodes are full of action in the same way Watteau's fêtes galantes are, but with an added element of poses drawn from classical ballet.
Storming the Citadel or The Surprise or The Meeting (1773)
- This picture depicts the two lovers bathed in an almost unnatural radiance of stage lighting, and the woman's gestures derive directly from the stage. The thrust of her hand against the greenery is mirrored in countless prints of the period depicting dancers or actresses directing the audience's attention to the wings: this was a pantomimic gesture gaining popularity in the French theatre at the time.
Besides the dramatic tension between the two lovers, however, there is a tension between them and the sculpture that towers above them--a statue of Venus withholding Cupid's quiver of arrows from him. Watteau had used a different version of this sculpture in at least two of his paintings, and Fragonard would have known those paintings as well as Dryden knew Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. In Watteau's paintings, however, Venus is playful and smiling. Here she is rough and menacing, almost knocking Cupid off of the cloud. The trees in the background, too, seem to shy away from her and match the angles formed by her body and Cupid's. You might be reminded of Pope's line in "Windsor Forest" about Nature there: "Not Chaos-like together crush'd and bruis'd, / But as the World, harmoniously confus'd."
The Declaration of Love (1773)
- The calmest work of the four, this picture has a statue of Venus as friendship dominating the scene at the right. The lovers in the center act almost as a human sculpture, the woman on the central pedestal and the man leaning into her shoulder in a stylized posture of devotion. If these postures seem overly artificial to you, it might do to remember that adolescents today often mimic the walk, the talk, the gestures, the hairstyles, and the clothing of movie and television stars, and that if the young men and especially the women of Fragonard's day mimicked the gestures of the Belles of the theatre in Paris it should not be surprising. This painting, at any rate, would not have seemed unduly artificial to a contemporary viewer any more than an Olan Mills portrait, complete with artificial countryside background seems inappropriate for the wall of your parents' home. You might also notice here that the trees create the shape of a heart behind the couple.
The Pursuit (1773)
- In this picture the woman is again in motion, and to a contemporary viewer she would have been unmistakably performing in a ballet. She is leaping in a classic ballet position, and she wears soft, low-heeled ballet slippers like those worn by professional dancers of the time. The grouping of the three women is also a direct allusion to a contemporary choreographer's typical composition of figures on stage. In a similar way, the sculpture in the upper right of Cupids with a dolphin fountain would be recognizable as a visual allusion to Boucher, who often included such sculptures in his paintings, though with a much lighter and playful touch. Here, as in the first painting, the sculpture suggests darkness and turbulence, or at least mystery. Love may be a game with a conventional ending, but in the middle of the game convention dictates suspense.
The Lover Crowned (1773)
- Along with the sorts of details you see in the companion paintings, here you will find scattered attributes of the sister arts, particularly the lute and tambourine and the sheet music, but also the statuary, the architecture, the landscape garden design, and the implied allusion to the dance and the opera and, therefore, to literature. Note also the presence of the artist himself in the figure in the foreground, who by his posture initiates the diagonal movement of the viewer's eye first to the woman's head and then on up to the statue of the sleeping Cupid. It is not the actions of the god of love now that animate the scene but the actions of the painter. Notice that in all of these paintings the gardens depicted are as lush and overgrown as the landscape on the island of Cythera in Watteau's painting. But also notice in this picture that two of the plants are orange trees growing in large boxes, natural and artificial at once. In order to produce oranges without damage from the cold weather, orange trees were planted this way to be moved inside hothouses called orangeries. The figures in these paintings are hothouse plants of a different sort, as protected by their social class from the wildness of life as Pope's shepherds are by his poetic composition.
I would also like you to consider in more detail the relationship between the human figures and the sculptures depicted in the paintings. Normally we think of sculpture as static and eternal. When we come upon it in life, we know that it has appeared the way it has for a long time. In these paintings it is used as commentary on the action, and it serves as a response to or illustration of the lovers. The painter has created both at once, however, so the illusion of the sculpture's permanence versus the lovers' temporality is an illusion. Because they are created artificially in the painting, they are as permanent/eternal as the staturary. And perhaps the scenes they depict are just as eternal.
The Swing (1768)
- Note that the garden here is as lush and overgrown as the island of Cythera. A young lover has arranged to place himself where he can glimpse the treasures of his mistress, and he has arranged for an old, kindly, but unaware bishop to do the swinging. The young woman is quite aware of the situation, and seems playfully accepting. She kicks off her shoe, letting it fly at the statue of the god of discretion. See Gilbert West's poem on Stowe for an account of a similar incident.
Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) British
I show you these three final pictures as a contrast to the French pieces that are so stylized and dramatic in a performing arts sort of way. The influence of the theater and dance is everywhere in Fragonard. The following portraits by Gainsborough portray figures in the landscape in a slightly different way. First of all, the figures are real people. Second, though they are formal and posed, they are playing themselves, and the portraits tell us how they wished to be perceived.
Robert Andrews and his Wife (1748)
- Mr. Andrews appears here surrounded by his prized possessions: his hunting rifle, his hunting dog, his wife, his land. He is nonchalant and relaxed. His wife may seem a little less relaxed, perhaps because she was to be holding one of her husband's kills in her lap. Gainsborough never finished that part of the painting.
The Morning Walk (1785)
- This picture hangs in one of my favorite rooms in the National Gallery in London, accompanied by several Constables and Turners, of which you will see more in the coming weeks. This painting, like the previous one,is a marriage portrait. It is interesting to compare the two, painted nearly forty years apart. This couple, Mr. and Mrs. Hallett, moves easily through the landscape, dressed in their finery, accompanied by their faithful dog--not a hunting dog this time but a companion in leisure. Whereas the Andrews' landscape was a working farm, this landscape is a playground, a park created simply for its beauty. The Halletts, like Gainsborough himself in his brushwork, give the impression of effortless spontaneity. Many critics consider this painting to be Gainsborough's finest work.
The Linley Sisters (1772)
- In a similar wooded landscape, Gainsborough sets Elizabeth Anne (1754-1792) and Mary (1758-1787), the elder daughters of the elder Thomas Linley. Both were talented singers who performed in England's premier cultural centers, Bath and London. In 1773, Elizabeth (on the left) eloped with the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, whose play The Rivals provides a thinly disguised version of the romantic circumstances of their courtship. Mary married a more obscure playwright, Richard Tickell, in 1780. Their portrait was retouched by the artist in 1785.
Both sisters were at the pinnacle of their fame when the portrait was painted. Mary had joined her sister as a professional singer in 1771 a the Three Choirs Festival. Both women hold symbols of their profession: the music held by Mary is said to be "A Song of Spring" written by her husband and set to music by her father; Elizabeth leans on a guitar. Yet in many ways, the picture is a curious portrait of two prima donnas, since it reflects not their stage presence but their characters. This image seems to suggest the paramount virtue of the late Eighteenth Century--sensibility. A contemporary viewer would instantly recognize that the sisters have sought out this secluded woody spot not to practice their music but because of their instinctive love of wild places. To love nature was regarded as a virtue as important as loving each other, and the portrait illustrates both virtues.
Though wearing silk gowns of the latest fashion, the sisters seem to blend with their woodland setting, because Gainsborough echoes the colors and thexture of the surrounding landscape in the painting of the costumes. Coarse grasses on the right grow over Mary's dress almost as if they were being stitched into its design. The ivy and flowers on Elizabeth's left pick up the highlights of the lace on the edges of her dress. It is Gainsborough's handling of paint that creates the sense of unity between figure and landscape.
John D. Tatter, Birmingham-Southern College, email@example.com