William Hogarth was a British painter and engraver active during the eighteenth century in England. In February of 1713, then fifteen years old, Hogarth began an apprenticeship with an engraver based in London, Ellis Gamble. By 1720, the enterprising Hogarth had already met with professional success. Thus, from an early age, he established an ambitious precedent for his own artistic production. Although Hogarth never received formal training as a painter, he nonetheless created an impressive body of work consisting of monumentalized, satirical, and moralizing reinterpretations of history; genre paintings; a startlingly sympathetic and natural approach to portraiture; and an arsenal of engravings. Hogarth’s characteristic light, fluid touch and simple compositional dynamics appear in this 1742 portrait of British merchant and amateur architect Theodore Jacobsen.
Unlike paintings, engravings, usually printed on paper, were comparatively inexpensive to produce, less labor intensive, and much more mobile—hence the basis for their public appeal and profitability. As both a talented painter and trained engraver, Hogarth had the fortunate, albeit unusual, opportunity to control both of these artistic modes, a project he carried out by making reproductions of his own work. The financial independence and aesthetic freedom Hogarth thus secured represent his egalitarian, moral and pragmatic ideologies. This imperative was likely of particular importance for Hogarth, whose father was sent for four years to debtors’ prison when the artist was only eleven years old.
Hogarth’s lifetime project involved the establishment of a native British School of painting, which was inspired by his objection to the derivative nature of British art from Continental prototypes, and his patriotic desire to create a unified and distinctive British vernacular in painting. He confronted, in a language that could be clever and satirical in some cases, and serious and discerning in others, contentious social issues dealing with sexuality and class. He demonized political corruption and complacency, repudiating the artifice and iconographic complexity characteristic of aristocratic aesthetic convention. Portraying the quotidian experiences of the emerging middle class, and focusing on contemporary social issues, Hogarth communicated concerns particular to the British experience. The revolutionary nature of Hogarth’s celebration of the working class and promotion of social justice demanded that he coin a new and direct visual idiom. He achieved this objective through compositional clarity, ruddy treatment of flesh, and the implication of motion, creating easily accessible paintings inhabited by robust and healthy professionals, invigorated by the vitality of their enterprise, all seen in the Oberlin portrait.
In this painting, Hogarth positively affirms social mobility through the sitter’s professional acuity. Indeed Hogarth’s triangular figuration of Jacobsen’s arms echo the shape of the triangular structure in his hands, establishing a sense of fluidity between sitter and his professional work. Jacobsen came from a family of modest means, achieving personal success through professional merit. Here Hogarth uses a simple composition in order to communicate his ideologies effectively. For example, his use of strong contrasts of light and dark emphasize the three focal points of the composition: Jacobsen, his blueprint, and the generalized British landscape in the background, casting all else in shadow. The sitter’s rosy complexion likewise communicates Jacobsen’s robust British constitution. Jacobsen’s flesh-tones resonate with the colors of the muted sunset to his left, and the contours of his wig are practically identical to those of the generalized British landscape against which he is set. This coloristic resonance, in addition to the figural similarities, illumination, and close spatial proximity establish a visual connection between Jacobsen and the pastoral scene behind him. Likely a reflection of Hogarth’s national pride, the dialogue he creates emphasizes his sitter’s intellect, work ethic, and success as characteristic features of a new British identity.
Audio: Georgia Horn Weinberg, Oberlin College