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Right at Home in Hollywood
In the movie, Primary Colors, we had a thinly disguised bit of social commentary centred upon a recent American president's all-consuming bid to obtain political office. Were such a work of art to have been created in the 1700s it would, of course, have been done in the form of a painting, and the "producer" of such a work would have undoubtedly been William Hogarth. Born in England in 1697, Hogarth was primarily an engraver, specialising in prints satirising current events or social mores. Such works were immensely popular, and more than that, quite profitable. Shrewd, witty, and somewhat straight-laced, his work quickly attracted the attention of the evolving middle-classes while needling the upper classes, which they often lampooned. Nonetheless, even the wealthy seem to have bought them and must have secretly enjoyed them in spite of the fact they may have struck close to home.

Hogarth however, aspired to more. He wanted to be a painter. About 1731, he moved up from prints to a series of paintings through which he told moralising tales he made up himself, illustrated in oils, usually four to the set, something like a play in four acts. In one series, for instance, The Harlot's Progress, he depicts the story of a young farm girl lured into prostitution. Colour prints were sold based upon the paintings. The first set was so successful, he flipped the coin over and followed it with The Rake's Progress, a tale told of similar, male debauchery. Though he worked hard to establish himself as a painter, and showed considerably ability, the more expensive colour prints did not sell as well as those he'd done before so he gave up his dream and never painted again after 1745.

Hogarth was successful however in leaving us a number of sharp insights into what it must have been like to live amongst the moneyed classes in eighteenth century England. In 1743, Hogarth began his last, and perhaps his best work, a group of four paintings. The series was called Marriage a la Mode. The opening painting, entitled The Marriage Contract, depicts a wealthy merchant about to sign papers committing his attractive, teenage daughter in marriage to a penniless nobleman. The scene is a riot of subtle comedy and satire complete with lawyers, accountants, and even an architect peering out a window at the young nobleman's new house under construction, paid for no doubt by the wealthy merchant as part of his daughter's dowry. One look at the indolent, playboy viscount she is to marry, admiring himself in a mirror, and we know the arranged union is in trouble before it even begins. Obviously, striving to tell elaborate stories like this in paint, Hogarth must have found the limitations of his chosen medium quite frustrating. Perhaps he was simply born in the wrong century. He would have felt right at home in Hollywood.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
24 May 1998


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