In the eighteenth century, history painting was widely recognised as the highest artistic genre. Hogarth’s innovative approach to subjects and patronage is the focus of this gallery

In the eighteenth century, history painting – in which the artist represented only the most elevated literary, historical and religious subjects – was widely recognised as the supreme artistic genre. Despite the notorious lack of patronage for such works from the state, the church and the English aristocracy, Hogarth managed to monopolise the most important commissions for history paintings that did emerge from these sources during his career. In a highly original strategy, he also exploited the potential of new London hospitals as sponsors and venues for such canvases. In pictures such as David Garrick in the Character of Richard III, meanwhile, he successfully imbued portraiture with the gravitas and thematic depth expected of history painting.

Hogarth’s history paintings show him continually exploring the relationship between the ideal and the abject, the elegant and the grotesque, and in doing so, challenging high art’s traditional boundaries in the most radical way. In their experimentation with the pictorial and narrative conventions of the genre, and in their restless engagement with the issues of illness and suffering, sexual desire, patricide, racial difference, family breakdown, tyranny, corruption and inequality, Hogarth’s history paintings emerge as works of art as vital, critical and highly as his greatest satires and portraits. 

Works on display in this room

William Hogarth
Satan, Sin and Death (A Scene from Milton’s `Paradise Lost’) c.1735–40

William Hogarth, 'Satan, Sin and Death (A Scene from Milton's 'Paradise Lost')' circa 1735-40
William Hogarth
Satan, Sin and Death (A Scene from Milton's 'Paradise Lost') circa 1735-40
Oil on canvas
support: 619 x 745 mm
frame: 803 x 935 x 80 mm
Purchased 1966

This remarkable, unfinished canvas shows the scene in Milton’s Paradise Lost in which Sin – ‘woman to the waist, and fair, | But ended foul in many a scaly fold | Voluminous and vast, a serpent armed with mortal sting’ - intervenes between the armed figures of Satan and Death as they prepare to fight at the gates of hell. She is shown on the point of revealing to Satan that she is both his daughter and a former lover, and that the skeletal figure of Death is the offspring of their incestuous relationship.

In Hogarth’s canvas Sin is pictured as if trapped and imprisoned by the many-headed tentacles that wrap themselves around her torso and writhe from her waist; furthermore, her expression and her gestures are tender and imploring, rather than malicious or manipulative. Here, Hogarth attempts to fuse a feminised iconography of sentiment with a sublime and grotesque imagery of hell-fire, violence and monstrous masculinity.

William Hogarth
Study for ‘The Pool of Bathesda’ c.1735
Oil on canvas
620 x 745 mm
Manchester City Galleries

This study is for the enormous picture of The Pool of Bethesda that continues to hang alongside its pendant, The Good Samaritan, at St Bartholomew’s hospital in London. These works, the artist’s first attempts at history painting on such a large scale, were painted after Hogarth, hearing that the Italian painter Giacomo Amiconi was negotiating with the governors of St Bartholomew’s to decorate the hospital’s newly built ceremonial stairwell, offered his own artistic services for free.

In The Pool of Bethesda Hogarth depicts the episode from the New Testament when Christ moves amidst a gathering of ‘impotent, blind [and] withered’ sufferers at the sacred pool of Bethesda, whose waters, when disturbed by the seasonal visit of an angel, supposedly had the power to cure the first person who entered them (John 5: 7). Hogarth focuses on the central moment of this parable, when Christ miraculously heals a lame man whose poverty and disability had precluded him from ever enjoying the pool’s benefits.

William Hogarth
A Scene from ‘The Tempest’ c.1730–5
Oil on canvas
800 x 1016 mm
Nostell Priory, the St Oswald Collection (The National Trust. Acquired with the help of The Art Fund in 1971)

This was an important painting for the artist, in that it was an exercise in small-scale history painting executed for one of Hogarth’s small band of devoted aristocratic patrons, the Earl of Macclesfield. It is likely that Hogarth hoped it would stimulate future commissions of a similar kind. Though these never materialised, the painting itself is a rich and remarkable one, unjustly neglected in the standard scholarship on the artist.

The depicted moment is adapted from Act 1, Scene ii of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, when the beautiful and virginal heroine, Miranda, first encounters her future husband, the royal prince Ferdinand. He has just been washed up on the remote Mediterranean island where Miranda and her father, the magician-like Prospero, live in exile. Hogarth places Miranda’s seated, partially unclothed figure within a group of male figures that includes on the left the instantly besotted Ferdinand; and, on the right, Caliban, the ‘savage and deformed native of the island’ who acts as one of Prospero’s servants. Caliban’s fellow servant, Aerial, sings and plays music overhead.

William Hogarth
David Garrick as Richard III 1745
Oil on canvas
1905 x 2502 mm
National Museums Liverpool (Walker Art Gallery). Purchased with the assistance of The Art Fund, 1956

This monumental canvas offers a spectacular portrait of eighteenth-century Britain’s most famous actor. At the same time, they offer a complex representation of a particularly resonant literary and historical ‘character’ – that of Shakespeare’s Richard III. David Garrick had burst onto the capital’s theatrical scene in 1741 with his portrayal of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Richard III, a performance that contemporaries hailed as introducing a new degree of realism and expressiveness onto the English stage. Hogarth’s painting pictures the actor in the role that first brought him acclaim, and at the moment when the tyrannical king awakes from a nightmare-infested sleep on the battlefield at Bosworth.

Even as it promoted itself as an ambitious history painting centring on a great literary and historical ‘character’, Richard III, Hogarth’s work functioned as a flamboyant personal portrait of Garrick himself. Throughout his career, the actor took an active involvement in the construction of his public image, sitting in a variety of roles for a host of painters and ensuring that engravings and mezzotints taken from these works regularly reached the print-shop windows. Hogarth was quick to ensure that an especially high-quality engraving was produced of this spectacular canvas.

William Hogarth
Mr. Garrick in the Character of Richard the 3rd (second state) 20 June 1746
Etching and engraving on paper
419 x 528 mm
Andrew Edmunds, London

William Hogarth
Moses Brought to Pharaoh’s Daughter 1746
Oil on canvas
1727 x 2083 mm
The Coram Family in the care of The Foundling Museum, London

This painting, designed to hang in the Court Room of the Foundling Hospital for abandoned children, represents a poignant exploration of the dynamics of charity and childhood. The biblical scene it illustrates is the moment when the child Moses is about to be handed over to his adoptive mother, an Egyptian princess, whom we see sitting with her right arm outstretched towards the anxious child. Moses has been brought to the princess by a wet nurse who is shown being paid for her services and who, unbeknown to the princess, is the child’s actual mother – Hogarth paints her with tears on her cheeks as she receives her money.

Hogarth seems concerned to explore two of the perspectives generated by charitable activity: on one hand, that enjoyed by the benevolent person or institution; on the other, that experienced by the object of charity – in this case, a vulnerable child. Thus, Pharaoh’s daughter is someone who is undoubtedly meant to embody the ethos of the Foundling Hospital itself, while Moses’ anxiety as he prepares to leave his mother behind offers a powerful analogue to that experienced by the children who were being taken into care by the Hospital.

William Hogarth, 'Sigismunda Mourning over the Heart of Guiscardo' 1759
William Hogarth
Sigismunda Mourning over the Heart of Guiscardo 1759
Oil on canvas
support: 1004 x 1265 mm
Bequeathed by J.H. Anderdon 1879

William Hogarth
Sigismunda Mourning over the Heart of Guiscardo 1759

This audacious painting marked Hogarth’s final attempt to gain universal approbation as a history painter. As is well known, the picture ended up generating some of the most damning criticism the artist ever suffered. The work draws on John Dryden’s retelling of a tale from Boccaccio’s Decameron, in which Sigismunda, the daughter of prince Tancred, falls in love with one of her father’s attendants, Guiscardo. When Tancred finds out that his daughter has secretly married, he flies into a rage, orders that Guiscardo be killed and his heart be delivered to Sigismunda. Hogarth pictures the grief-stricken heroine with tears in her eyes, cradling the casket containing Guiscardo’s heart to her breast. Remarkably, he shows one of her fingertips touching the exposed, glossy red heart itself.

The painting was commissioned by Sir Richard Grosvenor, who had told Hogarth that he could choose any subject and charge any price he desired for this work. The artist used the opportunity to return to the field of history painting and to focus on an especially tragic subject. In a dramatic turn-about, however, Grosvenor made it clear that he found both the work and the price demanded by Hogarth unacceptable, and the artist, bitterly disappointed, released him from his agreement.