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Hogarth as a Social Commentator

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Hogarth as a Social Commentator William Hogarth existed in the increasingly commercialized society of the early eighteenth century, and the effects of a changing Britain inspired him to create his "Modern Moral Subjects" through which he could express his criticisms. Though he found no fault with the "free market" itself, Hogarth found fault with the corruptive behavior associated with the gaining of wealth, including moral, sexual and religious decadence. Through his A Harlot's Progress, British Museum, 1732, and Marriage a-la Mode, National Gallery, 1745, one can perceive his symbolic condemnation of these shortcomings of society, condemnations which allow him to be labeled as a social commentator of his time. The new consumer market was much larger and all encompassing, and works of art, a sign of class status, became commodities. Hogarth could observe the "connection between consumption, class, and imitation" (Paulson, Preface). He was then able to create his "Modern Moral Subjects", in which "each scene of a series was a 'set' based on real-life surroundings, and the events depicted were based on what Hogarth saw as reprehensible occurrences in society to which he could draw attention through the medium of his art" (Haslam, 88). Rather than follow the tradition of "High Art" of his contemporaries, he allowed the images in the foreground to be realistic and modern, while having allegorical pictures in the background as a significant reflection of these images. ...read more.


In the fourth scene, entitled Scene in Bridewell, the girl has been taken to the House of Correction where she must make rope. "A 'Bartholomew doll' describes a tawdry, overdressed woman . . . Hogarth makes play with the word 'doll' by over-dressing the harlot in the circumstances portrayed, but her finery helps to contrast her illusions of gentility with the reality of her situation: its deterioration is synonymous with the deterioration in her physical condition" (Haslam, 93). Scene five, "She expires while the Doctors are Quarrelling", finds the harlot dying of syphilis while the doctors argue over their respective treatments. Lying on the floor are the instructions for the use of an device to ward of the effects of the disease on children, as well as some badly stored condoms. The child for whom this was purchased is by the fire, and he is more concerned with his dinner and head lice than his own or his mother's fate. "The cracked mirror is a symbol of vanity, the vanity of women who survey their own femininity" (Haslam, 99). This mirror is cracked, and the harlot is unable to see herself as she really was. In the final scene of the series, The Funeral, the attempts to save the girl's life have obviously not been successful, as it takes place at her funeral. ...read more.


The scene shows a levee in the wife's boudoir, and in attendance are an Italian opera singer and by Silvertongue. The black servant is pointing to a statue of Actaeon, and implies that the viscount is being cuckolded. And double standards prevail, for though the viscount is also having liaisons, the wife's affair results in her husband's death by her lover's hand in the fifth scene, The Bagnio. The countess's death occurs in the last scene, The Lady's Death. A servant has given her laudanum to take. "The servant's cut-down coat has buttons missing, synonymous with his lack of mental faculties - a lack indicated also by his features and expression" (Haslam, 116). The merchant is removing the wife's ring, as monetary interests are still his main focus. The child in the scene is in a diseased state, caused by his parents, and his shortened life span will end the branch of the family tree. Hogarth uses syphilis to distinguish those who are moral delinquents. "The subscription ticket for the first series, A Harlot's Progress, was Boys Peeping at Nature (1730). This was an allusion to the lifting of a veil in order to seek out the truth" (Haslam, 87). Hogarth allowed his satire to have great depths, with various forms of symbolism, recognizing that he was aiming his work at a knowledgeable audience. He wanted to expose hypocrisy of the people who claimed to uphold traditional values, but whose actions are grievous. He can therefore be accurately named a social commentator of his time. ...read more.

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