William Hogarth and the Imitation Game

How did Hogarth and imitation decide the development of art in 18th century England?

Imitation always had a big influence on the art scene, especially in 18th century England. In the beginning, England did not have a proper English School of art; it was the use of imitation, particularly in William Hogarth, that created one and developed England as a new art centre in Europe.

It was William Hogarth who asked in the St. Martins-Lane Academy if there was a man able to paint a portrait in the manner of Van Dyck, and hang it where it could be seen and appreciated and the artist could enjoy the fame from his creation. Allan Ramsay – one of Hogarth’s biggest rivals – answered in the negative, saying that nobody could paint a portrait such as the one by Van Dyck, which twenty other artists confirmed.

Hogarth didn’t make the artists wait too long and presented in 1740 a portrait of Captain Coram (ill.1). It was an imitation of Van Dyck’s ‘Charles I and Henrietta Maria, with their two eldest children, Prince Charles and Princess Mary’ from 1631-1632 (ill. 2) and was exhibited in the Foundling Hospital.

At least this situation makes clear how widespread imitation was at that time. But what did Hogarth intend to achieve by creating a portrait in the manner of Van Dyck?

William Hogarth, 'Captain Thomas Coram', 1740, The Foundling Museum
William Hogarth, 'Captain Thomas Coram', 1740, The Foundling Museum
Sir Anthonis van Dyck, 'Charles I and Henrietta Maria with their two eldest children, Prince Charles and Princess Mary', 1631-32, East Gallery, Buckingham Palace
Sir Anthonis van Dyck, 'Charles I and Henrietta Maria with their two eldest children, Prince Charles and Princess Mary', 1631-32, East Gallery, Buckingham Palace

At that time imitation in art already had a long history. In the beginning it meant the imitation of nature by taking Ancient works as models – which was the basis for Renaissance art. In the next step imitation was defined as following the great Renaissance masters who encompassed nature completely. So, the representation of nature was seen as reachable only through their art.

The academization of imitation had started and first theories began to emerge. In general, these theories were saying that any artwork should be created in connection to a great master, from the “divine Raphael” (J. Richardson) and Leonardo to Rembrandt or Van Dyck, in order to create works as good as or “even better than the original” (J. Richardson).

Back to Hogarth. Hogarth, born in 1697, started his career in a time when England had no proper school of art. His first artworks, such as ‘A Harlot’s Progress’ (1732) and ‘A Rake’s Progress’ (1735) were moral cycles, called ‘modern moral subjects’, made for the Bourgeoisie and they became a big sell. This gave him instant fame and these works were adapted into opera shows.

These moral cycles have a direct (moral) meaning for the simple people and a more implicit one, thanks to the hidden imitations, which can only be spotted by art connoisseurs. Here, the imitations are mostly taken from Christian art: for instance, the Passion of Christ (ill. 4) in the last scene of the ‘Rake’s Progress’ (ill. 3). Hogarth meant to give his work a holy feeling and inscribe himself within the tradition of past religious painters. He brought Christian art – the beginning of art – to the next step.

William Hogarth, 'A Rake’s Progress: in the Madhouse, scene VII', 1735, copper engraving
William Hogarth, 'A Rake’s Progress: in the Madhouse, scene VII', 1735, copper engraving
Rogier van der Weyden, 'Pietà', c. 1441, Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium
Rogier van der Weyden, 'Pietà', c. 1441, Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium

This was a time when history paintings were considered the most valuable genre in art. The English art scene was under control of foreign painters from France, Italy and the Netherlands. It was said that English artists couldn’t produce high quality history paintings.

Following this, Hogarth tried to give his cycles the value of history paintings through his historical imitations. But the art world didn’t want to see more than ‘genre paintings’ in it.

The patriotic Hogarth started his fight against foreign artists and created his democratic St. Martin’s-Lane Academy in 1735 where character studies were made by using living models and not Ancient statues like in the established academies in France. The goal was to create a sovereign and autonomous English school of art.

Since English artists couldn’t do history paintings they were commissioned to do portrait paintings. The artists’ customers were from the noble society, who wished to be presented in portraits.

To get on the level of history paintings, the connection to an old master and the following of academic conventions were almost mandatory. The academic conventions in general provided the use of clear and bright columns and draperies, idealized clothes which flatter the body, a clear, smooth-skinned face with a touch of youth, a wig or a three-cornered hat.

Hogarth’s ‘Captain Coram’ (ill. 1, see above) is following this desire of a ‘historical portrait’ but he’s relegating the academic conventions as the column, the drapery and the idealized clothes and face to the background in order to put more likeness to the foreground with a subject from the Bourgeoisie (again). Coram gets the seat of the king in this heroic-style portrait – which Hogarth meant as a parody. This is Hogarth’s way of criticising the absolute consensus regarding academic conventions and forcing the artists to develop a sovereign English school.

The first response came from Ramsay himself with his portrait of Dr. Richard Mead (1747, ill. 5) and then from Reynolds with his portrait of William Legge in 1757 (ill. 6), which was an imitation of Van Dyck’s ‘Charles’ from 1636.

Allan Ramsay, Dr. Richard Mead, 1747, oil on canvas, Foundling Museum.
Allan Ramsay, 'Dr. Richard Mead', 1747, Foundling Museum
Sir Joshua Reynolds, 'William Legge, Second Earl of Dartmouth', 1757, Foundling Museum
Sir Joshua Reynolds, 'William Legge, Second Earl of Dartmouth', 1757, Foundling Museum

Both Ramsay’s and Reynolds’ portraits were sent as a gift to the Foundling Hospital where they were exhibited. Hogarth presented a more accurate likeness in his portrait, but Ramsay and particularly Reynolds surpassed Hogarth’s portrait in their idealization and use of academic conventions. Thus, the 1850s can be seen as the peak for the desire of strict rules regarding art productions.

At least here it’s getting obvious that Hogarth’s intention was neither seen nor recognized. His aims were too subtle. Reynolds – who came back to England after two years in Italy – included the wish for a ruled and idealized way of painting in his works and rose up to be the leading British artist and the biggest rival of Hogarth. The artists from St. Martin’s-Lane’s Academy were running over to the side of Reynolds and the Academy soon dissolved in 1755.

In a last act Hogarth created an artistic manifesto which presented his aims so openly that he had to know for sure that he was never quite understood in the past. The art world didn’t want to see anything else than just an embittered anti-artist in Hogarth anymore.

In ‘Enthusiasm Delineated’ (1762, ill. 7), which he created in the last years of his life, he copied the masters one by one: e.g. Adam and Eve from Dürer’s ‘Fall of Man’, which can be seen on the body of the pulpit. Dürer painted Adam and Eve en face, which is why he had to paint one hand to the side so that the viewer could see the palm.

William Hogarth, 'Enthusiasm Delineated', 1761, The Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco
William Hogarth, 'Enthusiasm Delineated', 1761, The Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco

It’s the ‘mistakes’ of artists from Raphael to Dürer or Rembrandt that Hogarth wanted to point out. The auctioneer, who is dealing artworks (Raphael’s ‘Godfather’ in his right hand and Rubens’s ‘Satan’ in his left), presents them so enthusiastically and credibly that the people start to eat the Jesus dolls in their hands. In the mid/late 18th century the artists and connoisseurs were so blindfolded in relation to the old masters that so-called ‘connoisseurs’ weren’t able to see the difference between original and fake anymore, and auctioneers could easily sell fake Rembrandts and Michelangelos.

Unfortunately, Hogarth never published this version of his manifesto. Maybe because he had foreseen that he wouldn’t be able to stop this art movement, or maybe because he was too proud to share these thoughts with other artists.

Hogarth’s imitation of Van Dyck triggered such an unprecedented imitation contest that it gave birth to the English School of art. Reynolds’ academic imitation won this game. He brought his principles to the creation of the new Royal Academy of Arts in London, with himself as its first president, five years after Hogarth’s death.

Fatih Tarhan, 22, is an Art history graduate of Freie Universität, Berlin.

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