Hogarth’s first modern moral series A Harlot’s Progress and The Rake’s Progress, which made him rich and famous, are displayed here in full

A Harlot’s Progress, focused on the life of Moll Hackabout, a fictional London prostitute. The sequence of six paintings was completed in 1732, by which point engraved versions had been advertised. Twelve hundred sets were purchased. Hogarth followed this runaway success with The Rake’s Progress, which was similarly fêted. The series, incorporating eight individual images, charted the dissolute life and ignoble demise of another fictional character, Tom Rakewell, the unprincipled son of a wealthy financier.

With the harlot and the rake, Hogarth had selected two social archetypes, whose interwoven ‘professions’ and habitual environments were sleazy, perverse and thus fascinating to a wide social spectrum and, of course, rich with satirical possibilities. In creating his storylines, Hogarth not only made use of popular narrative formulas and identifiable locations within the city, but incorporated real-life characters and events that featured in London newspapers. Such references gave both topicality and an air of authenticity to Hogarth’s observations on the seedier side of London life. 

Works on display in this room

Before and After

During the 1730s Hogarth produced three versions of an image showing a young couple before and after a sexual encounter. All three are displayed here. The first series, in an outdoor setting, represents a light-hearted lampoon of fashionable French contemporary art. The ‘before and after’ format took a cynical turn, however, in the subsequent two series. Set in a lady’s bedchamber, the woman is cast as a reluctant prey and the man as a heartless predator. Importantly the woman is as modestly dressed as Moll Hackabout at the beginning of A Harlot’s Progress and Sarah Young, Tom Rakewell’s abandoned lover in A Rake’s Progress. Indeed we can imagine this brutal seduction scenario taking place between Plate 1 and Plate 2 of A Harlot’s Progress, when Moll is transformed – by implication, by Colonel Charteris, the infamous rake and convicted rapist – from a naïve country girl into a kept mistress.

The moral message of Hogarth’s Before and After series is underlined by the book positioned at the man’s feet in the After print. This refers to Aristotle’s dictum ‘Omne Animal Post Coitum Triste’ (every animal is sad after sex). While people might satisfy their sexual itch, Hogarth suggests, such sensual fulfilment is ultimately no fulfilment at all.

William Hogarth Before 1730-1731

William Hogarth
Before 1730-1731
Oil on canvas

Lent by the Syndics of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Bequeathed by Arnold John Hugh Smith through The Art Fund, 1964

Hogarth’s Before and After series parodied fashionable fête galante subjects by Antoine Watteau and others French artists, as well as modern high-life subjects by Jean-François du Troy. Such works often show a nobleman making elegant protestations of love to a lady.

William Hogarth After 1730-1731

William Hogarth
After 1730-1731
Oil on canvas

Lent by the Syndics of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Bequeathed by Arnold John Hugh Smith through The Art Fund, 1964

Before represents an amusing scene of studied elegance with gallant persuasion on the part of the man and affected coyness on the part of the woman. Far from leaving the consequences to our imagination, however, Hogarth shows the young couple after sex, bewildered by their physical experience. The undignified comedy of the event is underlined by the man’s genitals being visible beneath his dishevelled clothing.

William Hogarth
Before c.1730–1
Oil on canvas
387 x 337 mm
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

William Hogarth
After c.1730–1
Oil on canvas
387 x 337 mm
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Unlike the first versions of Before and After, displayed nearby, these violent images appear to represent a rape. In Before, all pretence at elegant “persuasion” has gone, as the man roughly pulls the woman towards the bed. The scampering dog in the foreground represents awakened desire and the falling dressing table and broken mirror denote the woman’s lost virginity and subsequent ‘fall’. In After, the man stares blankly into the distance as he pulls up his breeches. The sleeping dog indicates that his sexual appetite has been satisfied. Dishevelled after her ordeal, the woman seems to be appealing to him, perhaps for his discretion.

William Hogarth
Before December 1736
Etching and engraving on paper
426 x 328 mm
Courtesy Andrew Edmunds, London

Hogarth made additions to the print versions of Before and After. For example, a cherub can be seen lighting the fuse of a rocket in Before, denoting male sexual excitement.

William Hogarth
After December 1736
Etching and engraving on paper
409 x 330 mm
Courtesy Andrew Edmunds, London

In After, the laughing cupid gestures at the same rocket, now spent. The books seen on the falling dressing table probably symbolize innocence or virtue being corrupted. One refers to the Earl of Rochester, a notorious seventeenth-century rake, wit and poet, whose work was renowned for its blunt references to sexual subjects, including seductions. Another, The Practice of Piety, was a highly-respected Christian treatise, first published in 1601.

William Hogarth After December 1736

William Hogarth
After December 1736
Etching and engraving on paper
409 x 330 mm

Courtesy Andrew Edmunds, London

William Hogarth, 'A Rake's Progress (plate 4)' 1735

William Hogarth
A Rake's Progress (plate 4) 1735
Etching and engraving on paper
image: 318 x 387 mm
Transferred from the reference collection 1973

View the main page for this artwork