ObeliskThe Artists

William Hogarth

Portrait of William Hogarth

A printmaker analyzes taste — and beauty comes out on top

Satire is a difficult game to play, and William Hogarth played it hard. An engraver by trade, Hogarth grew up in London — walking the markets and documenting street life and the city’s diverse mob of humanity in sketches and prints.

Popular events and social customs were Hogarth’s bread and butter. Much of his early work were illustrated moral tales, like the series of six prints “The Harlots Progress” that told the story of a farm girl who fell into prostitution and eventually dies from syphilis. This blunt story proved tremendously successful, and Hogarth followed it with A Rake’s Progress, about a wastrel who gambles and whores himself into the grave. These cautionary tales were so successful that Hogarth had to lobby for copyright control when other print sellers began reproducing his work, eventually establishing the Engraver’s Copyright Act on June 25th, 1735.

This early exposure unlocked Hogarth’s snarky side, and his work gained a sharp satirical edge. His next series, — six paintings titled Marriage à-la-mode, exposed the misery of contractual marriage, and ripped into the lavish lifestyles of the upperclass. Moralizing had taken a turn for the humorous, and Hogarth continued to make series condemning alcoholism and cruelty to animals in darkly humorous of fate’s vengeance on the wicked, lazy and mean.

But as comedians face today, not everyone was laughing along. Hogarth’s preaching touched a nerve, and his work was often criticized by critics claiming he depicted all women as harlots and all men as caricatures. In 1753 Hogarth decided to get serious. In answer to his critics, and to prove his standing as a true artist, Hogarth published “The Analysis of Beauty” — a book containing six principles by which beauty is defined. It’s a startlingly powerful work to this day, establishing fitness, variety, regularity, simplicity, intricacy, and quantity as the foundational vocabulary of aesthetic form. Meticulously illustrated with examples of line quality, shape, texture, and composition — it was a dominant statement of insight and thoughtfulness from a truly skilled craftsman. The satirist had become a teacher.

Reed Enger, "William Hogarth, A printmaker analyzes taste — and beauty comes out on top," in Obelisk Art History, Published February 13, 2015; last modified May 28, 2020, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/william-hogarth/.

Read More

A Harlot's Progress Plate 1


Self Portrait


Analysis of Beauty: Plate 1


Analysis of Beauty: Plate 2


The infinite complexities of beauty in six principles

The Analysis of Beauty


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