Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Hogarth’s Genius
By Horace Walpole (1717–1797)
From Anecdotes of Painting

HAVING despatched the herd of our painters in oil, I reserve to a class by himself that great and original genius, Hogarth; considering him rather as a writer of comedy with a pencil, than as a painter. If catching the manners and follies of an age living as they rise, if general satire on vices and ridicules, familiarised by strokes of nature, and heightened by wit, and the whole animated by proper and just expressions of the passions, be comedy, Hogarth composed comedies as much as Molière: in his “Marriage à la Mode” there is even an intrigue carried on throughout the piece. He is more true to character than Congreve; each personage is distinct from the rest, acts in his sphere, and cannot be confounded with any other of the dramatis personæ. The alderman’s footboy, in the last print of the set I have mentioned, is an ignorant rustic; and if wit is struck out from the characters in which it is not expected, it is from their acting comformably to their situation and from the mode of their passions, not from their having the wit of fine gentlemen. Thus there is wit in the figure of the alderman, who, when his daughter is expiring in the agonies of poison, wears a face of solicitude, but it is to save her gold ring, which he is drawing gently from her finger. The thought is parallel to Molière’s, where the miser puts out one of the candles as he is talking. Molière, inimitable as he has proved, brought a rude theatre to perfection. Hogarth had no model to follow and improve upon. He created his art, and used colours instead of language. His place is between the Italians whom we may consider as epic poets and tragedians, and the Flemish painters, who are as writers of farce and editors of burlesque nature. They are the Tom Browns of the mob. 1 Hogarth resembles Butler, but his subjects are more universal, and amidst all his pleasantry, he observes the true end of comedy, reformation; there is always a moral in his pictures. Sometimes he rose to tragedy, not in the catastrophe of kings and heroes, but in marking how vice conducts insensibly and incidentally to misery and shame. He warns against encouraging cruelty and idleness in young minds, and discerns how the different vices of the great and the vulgar lead by various paths to the same unhappiness. The fine lady in “Marriage à la Mode,” and Tom Nero in the “Four Stages of Cruelty,” terminate their story in blood—she occasions the murder of her husband, he assassinates his mistress. How delicate and superior too is his satire, when he intimates in the College of Physicians and Surgeons that preside at a dissection, how the legal habitude of viewing shocking scenes hardens the human mind, and renders it unfeeling. The president maintains the dignity of insensibility over an executed corpse, and considers it but the object of a lecture. In the print of the sleeping judges, this habitual indifference only excites our laughter.
Note 1. Tom Browns of the mob.  Thomas Brown (1663–1704) was a well-known author of miscellaneous scurrilities, by which he contrived to link his name with men of note of the time, from Dryden downwards. [back]

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