The Hogarth Etchings
The works of a seventeenth century visual artist are surprisingly of central importance to Igor Stravinsky twentieth century operatic masterpiece The Rake’s Progress. Painter, printmaker and cartoonist William Hogarth (1697-1764) was the leading artistic figure of British art in the mid-eighteenth century and a proponent of the Rococo style in Britain. Though no self-respecting British artist would ever openly admit the worth of French Rococo art, thanks to heavy anti-French political sentiment, Hogarth’s 1753 treatise, The Analysis of Beauty, praised the curving lines and ornate detail of Rococo painting as the standard of artistic excellence. This philosophy was in direct contrast to the ideals of earlier generations of artists, who emphasized classical Greek and Roman elements of straight lines and elegant geometrical proportions. Hogarth’s main legacies were in the areas of series art (early cartoons) and copyright law.
Born in London in 1697 to Richard Hogarth, a teacher and writer of limited means, and Anne Gibbons, Hogarth’s childhood was a rough and poverty-stricken one. His father spent several years in debtor’s prison, owing money from an unsuccessful commercial venture, a Latin-speaking coffeehouse. To help support his struggling family, young William began an apprenticeship with the London engraver Ellis Gamble in 1713. There he learned the craft of engraving, particularly the engraving of trade cards, an eighteenth-century form of business advertising.
By 1720 he was a fully-trained engraver with his own thriving engraving business. Hogarth also expanded his artistic training to include drawing and painting, studying at Sir James Thornhill’s art academy in St. Martin’s Lane, Covent Garden. In 1729 he further formalized his association with Thornhill by marrying his mentor’s daughter Jane. The marriage was a long and happy one, though it produced no offspring. Still, Jane and William advocated for children throughout their life, fostering orphaned children and supporting the Foundling Hospital in London.
Portraiture was a large part of Hogarth’s output throughout his career, but particularly during the 1720s and early 1730s. Reflecting the rise of the Protestant middle class and merchant class after Cromwell’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, Hogarth’s subjects often came from the middle class or even lower class, or “low-life” subjects, rather than the aristocracy. One of Hogarth’s most famous (and most sensational) portraits of this period was a sketch of the condemned murderer Sarah Malcolm, made when he visited her in prison just three days before her hanging.
Notwithstanding the quality and popularity of his portraiture, Hogarth’s place in art (and consequently, operatic) history was secured through his satirical painting and “moralizing art,” or art that communicates strong moral commentary. Subjects of his satire range from political and economic corruption to the theatrical and musical tastes of the day. Each of his “Modern Moral Subjects” consists of a series of paintings which tell a story of corruption, typically ending with tragic demise, punishment, or some other type of degradation. Hogarth’s series art was the predecessor to the modern comic strip or storyboard, and influenced much of the satirical and political cartoonists of following centuries. Both the satirical and moralizing works were full of details and allegorical symbols that would speak to Hogarth’s audience, many of whom were staunch and upright Protestants.
An early moralizing series was A Harlot’s Progress, created in 1731, which depicts the progressive corruption and subsequent death of an innocent country maiden. The huge success of this series led to a follow-up entitled A Rake’s Progress. Many contemporary (and competitive) engravers created their own copies of these works and were profiting from pirated versions of Hogarth’s work. An astute businessman as well as a fine artist, Hogarth began to lobby in Parliament for an artist’s right to control his own work. In 1735 the Engraver’s Act, also known as “Hogarth’s Act,” was enacted, the first example of copyright law. After assuring ownership of his intellectual property, he sold direct subscription of these and other morality series to interested parties at a reasonable rate. He enjoyed a comfortable income throughout his life through this innovative practice in combination with his commissions from portrait paintings.
For A Rake’s Progress, Hogarth envisioned the tale of his anti-hero in eight vignettes. A side note: A “rake,” short for “rakehell,” was a term popular in Georgian-era England for a morally bankrupt man. The typical rakish character, often found in Restoration comedies, inherits a fortune that he squanders on profligate living, particularly womanizing. Some rakes are reformed through the love of a good woman, while others continue their licentious behaviors unrepentant.
Hogarth’s first painting in the series depicts our anti-hero, Tom Rakewell, coming into his inheritance. We see him measured for new clothing at the same time he rejects his pregnant fiancée, Sarah, who is holding his ring. Her mother stands behind her, holding the love letters Tom has sent Sarah. In the next painting, Tom is shown at his levée in London, surrounded by sycophants and acquaintances. The levée was a morning “dressing” ceremony, where a nobleman would interact with various hangers-on while being readied by his servants for the day’s events. In the third scene, Tom’s debased behavior reaches a low point, as he participates in a drunken orgy at the Rose Tavern.
Paintings 4, 5 and 6 depict Tom’s desperate attempts to salvage his lifestyle. Number four shows Sarah, now employed as a milliner, saving Tom from debt collectors as he travels in a sedan chair. In the fifth scene, he marries an aged and ugly but wealthy woman, while Sarah looks on, with Tom’s and Sarah’s illegitimate child crawling at the feet of the nuptial couple. Next, we see Tom, with his wig lying on the floor next to him, pleading for divine assistance, having lost his second fortune at the gambling tables.
The seventh scene finds our “hero” thrown in debtor’s prison. His furious wife harangues him, while the ever-faithful Sarah swoons nearby. Finally, Tom loses his mind completely, and ends his days in the Bethlem Royal Hospital for the mentally ill, commonly known as Bedlam. Sarah cradles his mindless body and weeps for his fate, but Tom does not recognize her.
William Hogarth enjoyed a prosperous and successful career through the latter decades of his life. His gifts of paintings to the Foundling Hospital, where he served on the board of governors, and to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital were some of the first examples of art to be exhibited as part of a public building, rather than in a private collection. He replaced his brother-in-law John Thornhill as Serjeant Painter to the British monarchy in 1857 and held this prestigious appointment until his death in 1864.
Igor Stravinsky viewed a set of Rake’s Progress engravings in March of 1947 while they were on exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. For a number of years Stravinsky had been toying with the idea of an opera in English, the language of his adopted country. Stravinsky at this time was in the height of his neo-classical period, during which he was channeling Baroque and Classical musical aesthetics through the lens of modern tonal expansion. It’s likely that the time period so colorfully depicted in the engravings appealed to Stravinsky’s compositional focus. His neighbor in Los Angeles, author Aldous Huxley, suggested as a librettist the poet Wystan Hugh Auden, who proved adept at creating the stylized poetic forms Stravinsky envisioned to complement his pseudo-classical musical style. As they worked through the scenario of the opera, they reordered Hogarth’s work symmetrically (1, 3, 2, 4, 5, 7, 6, 8) and altered a few details, particularly in episodes 4 and 6. This highly successful collaboration, full of respect, admiration, and collegiality, led to one of the most important operas of the twentieth century.
For a look at the complete set of paintings of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress as well as detailed commentary on the art, visit http://www.soane.org/collections_legacy/the_soane_hogarths/rakes_progress/
For a look at set designer and painter David Hockney’s autobiographical series of 16 etchings inspired by Hogarth’s work, visit http://www.hockneypictures.com/graphics_rakes_progress/graphics_rakes_01.php
Materials prepared by Dr. Carol Anderson