Samuel Johnson, that eighteenth-century English authority on human learning and life, had a surprisingly low regard for painting. But he knew the first great British artist, William Hogarth, and publicly applauded the first art exhibitions in England. Johnson would have found an equally good reason to applaud Bridgewater State College’s Hogarth Festival in October of 1982. This exhibition of twenty-five, beautifully preserved prints was a splendid sampling of Hogarth’s artistic legacy selected from the collection owned by the Judd Family of New Jersey and on loan from Monmouth College, New Jersey through Professor Vincent DiMattio. All in all, the Hogarth Festival afforded spectators a rare opportunity to glimpse the energies and excesses of Henry Fielding’s England and Johnson’s London.

To grasp the uniqueness of Hogarth’s artistry is to take into account the more conventional aesthetic standards of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the century’s most famous portrait painter. Reynolds hungered after the epic dignity of the grand style in painting and found nothing of it in Hogarth’s works. Reynolds’ later Discourses held up Michelangelo and the spectacular Sistine Chapel for veneration and imitation: “The style of Michael Angelo, which I have compared to ... the language of the gods, now no longer exists, as it did in the fifteenth century.” No doubt, the differences between Michelangelo of the Sistine Chapel and Hogarth of Leicester Fields, London could not be more dramatic. Whereas the Italian master executed his epic subject of the biblical history of humankind, the engraver captured extraordinary moral insights in the ordinary middle-class culture of England. Hogarth’s contemporaries still respected classical-Renaissance grandeur, but a secular, fact-minded modern sensibility now flourished.

Note on the Author

Thomas M. Curley is Professor of English.