- Death by Hogarth
That Hogarth abandoned the counterpart to Marriage A-la-Mode, a progress about a virtuous country squire’s life known as “The Happy Marriage,” is not surprising, even though the surviving oil sketches are brilliant. The unfinished canvas for “The Staymaker” may hold its own with the best of his conversation pieces for its depiction of an intimate moment within a family, but surely Ronald Paulson was right to suggest that Hogarth sensed that this modern moral subject with its positive exemplars lacked the necessary drama to engage his imagination fully. Hogarth relished portraying types interesting at a safe distance—the debauchee, the wastrel, the girl who is no better than she should be, the boy born to be hanged—doing those things which they ought not and letting them suffer the consequences. From the first plates Hogarth’s protagonists betray the traits that will ruin them, and there is nothing that the miserable wretches, their relations or friends can do in the subsequent scenes to arrest—much less reverse—the downward spiral from degradation to crime and death. Even if he had given Tom Rakewell a good heart and a handsome face, it is hard to imagine that Hogarth would have let him off, much less rewarded him, in the end: his progresses have no Tom Joneses whom the audience might come to like in spite of their faults. And when Hogarth depicted his antiheroes’ disadvantaged circumstances, he probably did not regard poverty or displacement by new technology as factors that helped explain the sociopathic behavior of an Idle or a Nero. Society still had the right to execute them for their crimes.
So images of death in Hogarth made an excellent subject for the Fogg’s small exhibition of nearly fifty prints, which were rounded out with related books and objects from Harvard’s Law and Houghton libraries (the engraved silver tankards and cutlery that Tom Nero would have lifted from a prosperous household were nice additions). The Hogarth prints on display were loaned by Gerald and Suzanne Labiner and their superb collection was also the backbone of “Hogarth and the Theater of Life,” an exhibition installed at the Hammer Museum in conjunction with the 1997 UCLA Center for Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Studies symposium honoring the tercentenary of the artist’s birth at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library. Like the Hammer’s curators, Frédéric Ogée and Hans-Peter Wagner, the Fogg’s exhibition organizer, Elizabeth Mitchell, also relied on the concept of theatricality to open up Hogarth’s visual narratives. However, she chose to focus on the public spectacle of hanging at Tyburn’s three-sided platform instead of the stage crowded with actors playing their roles, as did Ogée and Wagner.
Mitchell did not entirely succeed in solving the perpetual curatorial dilemma of engaging and holding the viewer’s attention, as well as reflecting current scholarship on the subject, when she decided to organize the material according to the three different meanings of the word “execution”—to perform, to put to death according to the forms of justice, and to do what [End Page 128] is planned or determined—in order to show how all three definitions are tangled up in Hogarth’s representations of the theater, the scaffold, or any other space where characters act out scenes in their lives. The concept helped elucidate the ways in which imagery from popular entertainment and the rituals of public execution overlap in the progresses and satirical prints. It was harder to see its relevance to the representations of women who came to bad ends, because the labels did not make it clear why the definition “to do what is planned or determined” was an appropriate description for the actions of such a disparate group of individuals. In fact, the definition implies a rather unflattering view of the female character: either women fall in with their seducers’ plans because they are too weak to resist, like the foolish virgin in Before and After, the whore Moll Hackabout, or the pregnant girl in Woman...