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  • Hogarth’s Post-Newtonian Universe
  • Amal Asfour

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Figure 1.

William Hogarth, A Scene from “The Indian Emperor or The Conquest of Mexico,” 1732. Oil on canvas, 511/2 x 573/4 in. Private Collection.

Sir Isaac Newton’s head occupies a prominent position in William Hogarth’s painting of A Scene from “The Indian Emperor or The Conquest of Mexico” dating from 1732 (Fig. 1). It sits in the form of a white marble bust on a mantlepiece which forms part of the interior of the London residence of John Conduitt (1688–1737), Newton’s successor as Master of the Mint and the husband of his niece, Katherine Barton, overlooking the colorful scene which animates the rather somber architectural setting. Conduitt commissioned Hogarth for the painting in commemoration of the performance of John Dryden’s heroic play, The Indian Emperour or The Conquest of Mexico (1665), given at Conduitt’s house early in the spring of 1732 by the children seen in mid-gesture on the stage to the right. Hogarth’s painting has been described as “perhaps the greatest of all the conversation pieces”; 1 it is certainly the largest, measuring 51š by 57(integral) inches, emphatically fulfilling its commemorative purpose and forcefully asserting its identity as an object. This physicality is thematized in the painting as an interplay between the concrete and graspable and the visual and fleeting, or, to translate these broad distinctions into more precise eighteenth-century terms, between the primary and secondary qualities of objects. The question of this relationship invokes a philosophical issue that Hogarth and his contemporaries found compelling. The most urgent matter of discussion was the role that seeing played in the mainstream empiricist epistemology that developed in the wake of John Locke and Newton, whose presence is so notable in Hogarth’s painting. Simply stated, this concerns the degree to which commentators could accept Locke’s doctrine of the tabula rasa. The argument that will emerge here is that Hogarth adopts a nativist position in this eighteenth-century philosophical consideration of the status of the human being in the post-Newtonian world, and by addressing this issue in painterly terms, Hogarth’s Conquest of Mexico may be said to encompass what can be called a morality of form. [End Page 693]

Dryden’s drama, a sequel to his Indian Queen, deals with the conquest of Aztec Mexico by Hernando Cortez, who not only wins the emperor Montezuma’s realm but also captures the heart of his daughter Cydaria and is “Thus doubly Blest, with Conquest, and with Love.” 2 In the children’s performance depicted by Hogarth, the part of Cortez was performed by Lord Lempster and that of Montezuma’s daughter by Lady Caroline Lennox. Lady Sophia Fermor played the role of Almeria, a daughter of the late Indian queen, Montezuma’s predecessor. All the actors were about ten years old. Hogarth depicts the prison scene (IV.iv) in which Almeria, who finds that she loves Cortez in spite of the fact that he has killed her brother, visits him in captivity. Montezuma’s daughter Cydaria enters onto the scene just in time to witness Cortez kissing Almeria’s hand. Cydaria questions her lover’s explanations: “Alas, what needs / To hear your words, when I beheld your deeds?” When Cortez’s soldiers burst in to liberate him, Almeria attempts to stab Cydaria and then herself but is (this time) prevented by Cortez. With a little painterly license, Hogarth has added Alibech, Almeria’s sister played by Kitty Conduitt, to the turbulent scene of love and rivalry. [End Page 694]

The Conduitt production was directed by Colley Cibber’s son Theophilus (1703–58), actor and playwright, “a man of incurable habits of extravagance,” 3 patentee and later manager of the theater at Drury Lane. Watching the performance by the distinguished young cast was an even more august audience seen on the left of Hogarth’s painting. Grouped directly in front of the fireplace are the young Duke of Cumberland and his sisters the Princesses Mary and Louisa. Also attending were the duke’s governor, Stephen Poynts, the princesses’ governess, Countess Deloraine and her daughters...

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