William Hogarth

The Dance (The Happy Marriage ?VI: The Country Dance)


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William Hogarth 1697–1764
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 677 × 892 mm
frame: 840 × 1050 × 70 mm
Purchased with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund 1983

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This is a sketch for a painting in a series about a happy marriage, which Hogarth never completed. It shows a dance in the hall of an old-fashioned Jacobean country mansion. Hogarth includes a range of clearly differentiated types, from the elegant couple on the right, to the ‘country bumpkins’ further down the line. In the background a tired dancer has taken off his wig and mops his bald head in the cool night breeze at the open window.
Hogarth later adapted this design for one of the plates in his theoretical treatise, the Analysis of Beauty, published in 1753.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

T03613 The Dance (The Happy Marriage? VI: The Country Dance) c. 1745

Oil on canvas 677×892 (26 5/8×35 1/8)
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund 1983
PROVENANCE In Hogarth's studio until his death; bt from Mrs Hogarth by Samuel Ireland before 1782; his sale, Sotheby's 7–15 May 1801 (460 as ‘The First Sketch of the Dance to the Analysis of Beauty’) £3 13s 6d bt Vernon; ...; W.B. Tiffin of the Strand by 1833; ...; Charles Meigh of Grove House, Shelton, Staffs., sold Christie's 21 June 1850 (105 as ‘The Happy Wedding. The Ball.’) bt Hoare; ...; William Carpenter of Forest Hill by 1875 when lent to RA; bequeathed by him to the South London Art Gallery 1899; sold by the London Borough of Southwark to the Tate Gallery
EXHIBITED RA Winter 1875 (35 as ‘Sketch for a Country Dance at the Wanstead Assembly, Essex’); Old London, Whitechapel Art Gallery 1911 (68); Peinture Anglaise, Musée Moderne, Brussels 1929 (86); English Conversation Pieces, 25 Park Lane 1930 (123, pl.32); RA 1934 (232, pl.XXVIII, p.23, Memorial Catalogue no.67; AC tour 1946 (3); BC tour 1946 (5, repr.); British Painting 1730–1850, BC tour, Lisbon, Madrid 1949 (21); BC tour 1949 (61); Tate Gallery 1951 (63); RA 1954 (28); Hogarth the Londoner, Guildhall Art Gallery 1957 (26); BC tour 1957 (35, repr.); BC tour 1960 (7); British Painting 1700–1960, BC tour 1966, Cologne, Zurich, Rome (7, repr.), Warsaw (29, repr.); Tate Gallery 1971 (148, repr. in col.)
ENGRAVED 1. Adapted and engraved by William Hogarth as Plate II for The Analysis of Beauty, 1753
2. Etching by T. Ryder for Ireland 1799, II, as Plate IV of ‘The Happy Marriage’
LITERATURE Nichols 1782, pp.39–42 (for other scenes from the ‘Happy Marriage’ series), 258–62, 1785, pp.46–49, 115, 327–31; S. Ireland 1799, pp. 129–31, engr. facing p.130; Nichols & Steevens I, 1808, p. 128n., II, 1810, pp.198–9 (quoting Nichols 1782, etc.), repr. as T. Cook's engraving after Analysis of Beauty, facing p.198, III, 1817, pp.207, 258; Nichols 1833, pp.356–7; Dobson 1898, pp.94n., 291–2, 300; Dobson 1907, pp.196, 206, 310; Beckett 1949, pp.67–8, pl.168; Antal 1962, pp.28, 30, 51, 105, 113–6, 163, 183, 199, 204, 209, 217, 240 nn.58–9, 241 nn.60–4, pl.94a; Baldini & Mandel 1967, p.110, no. 163, pl.XLVII (col.); Paulson 1971, I, pp.15, 18–19, 174, II, pl.197; Jack Lindsay, Hogarth: His Art and His World, 1977, pp.130–1, repr. facing p.182; Webster 1979, pp.115–8, 186, no.147, repr. p. 122; Bindman 1981, pp.160–2, fig.127, and in col. (detail) fig.128

Nichols, writing in 1781–2, was the first to point out that ‘The Dance’ is one of six scenes for the ‘Happy Marriage’ series planned by Hogarth as a counterpart to his ‘Marriage A-la-Mode’ painted c. 1743 (see no. 104). Of the three surviving sketches, this is certainly the most finished, and is arguably one of the most brilliant studies of figures in action in early eighteenth century British painting.

The scene is a country dance in the hall of an old-fashioned Jacobean country mansion; the open sky and the outlines of the village church can be seen through the window. The participants represent a gamut of individual types, from the elegant couple on the right, to the country bumpkins further down the line. One perspiring reveller has removed his wig to mop his bald pate in the cool night breeze at the open window. The silvery moonlight contrasts with the warm light of the brilliantly painted chandelier in the centre of the room - significantly, it is these two different sources of light that are the most finished parts of the painting. The action of the dance is framed by a dark foreground of which the main feature is a minstrels' gallery in the upper left corner, below which a shadowy group of people, including a lady and a clergyman, appear to be settling down to a quiet game of cards. The figure on the floor in the centre is probably the boot-boy whose task it would be to look after the pile of visitors' hats on the floor beside him. Hogarth is said to have intended to paint each hat in such a way that the viewer could identify its owner in the crowd: he did this with considerable success in the later engraving, though such detail would have been difficult to achieve in dark oil paint. The dark strip down the right-hand margin is an afterthought and was painted by Hogarth over the original window surround which continues underneath, to serve as an effective foil to the colourful action beyond.

From the late nineteenth century onwards until recently this scene has been frequently called ‘The Wanstead Assembly’ due to a confusion with Hogarth's group portrait of the Child family in the great hall of their mansion at Wanstead, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. At the root of it is probably the radically altered Palladian setting of the scene for the print of 1753, which, according to John Ireland (Hogarth Illustrated, 1793, I, p.lxxvl) was said to represent Wanstead House. Since Samuel Ireland's account of 1799 it has also been usual to call it ‘The Wedding Dance’, on the assumption that the scene represents the ball after the wedding. The fact remains, however, that Hogarth's intended narrative is not known. We do know, however, that one scene represented the wedding procession in church. This painting was cut up some time before 1833 (possibly by 1782, when Nichols gave the opinion that ‘there is little reason to lament the loss of it’), and the fragment from it in the collection of the Marquess of Exeter (Beckett 1949, fig.164) of a parson's head looks quite genuine. Nichols seems to be referring to this wedding picture when he complains (1782, p.42) that ‘An artist, who representing the marriage ceremony in a chapel, renders the clerk, who lays the hassocks, the principal figure in it, may at least be taxed with want of judgment.’ This has the ring of authentic irreverent Hogarthian invention, of the kind that easily upset Nichols's somewhat narrow sense of decorum and at times misled him into regarding Hogarth as an uncouth primitive. Recent X-rays of the much earlier ‘Beckingham Wedding’ (Metropolitan Museum, New York) show that just such a detail had been painted out in the left foreground of this otherwise very formal group. This raises the intriguing possibility that Hogarth, frustrated on this issue in an early commissioned work, subsequently made a point of including such a feature in wedding scenes where he had only himself to please, i.e. ‘The Happy Marriage’, and the wedding scene in ‘The Rake’.

The second surviving scene is of ‘The Wedding Banquet’, now in the Royal Institution of Cornwall, Truro, and formerly in the possession of Mrs Garrick. It is, as Nichols rightly noted, set in the same Jacobean mansion as the Tate painting, and the principal figure in it is the old squire who raises a toast to the young couple, while the musicians (not confined to the gallery as in this picture) strike up a tune in the background.

Both Nichols and Ireland assume that the narrative culminates in the wedding itself, but this is to ignore the time-scale of ‘Marriage A-la-Mode’ to which this was to be a parallel. This assumption also fails to leave room for ‘The Staymaker’ (N05359), which stylistically belongs to this series and appears to show the young couple surrounded by children. If one were to interpret ‘The Staymaker’ as a scene showing the fitting of the ballgown for the ball to follow, then one could see ‘The Country Dance’ as a grande finale of the series, the first assembly given by the young squire for his tenants and neighbours after coming into his inheritance on the death of his father - after, naturally, a decent period of mourning, which was perhaps represented by one of the lost scenes engraved for Ireland in 1799, e.g. plate III, ‘Relieving the Indigent’ (Beckett 1949, pl. 166), which has a tomb-like structure in the background. This would explain the absence here of the father so prominent in the ‘Banquet’, and the rather isolated female figure in the shadows at the card table on the left, who could be the widow, for whom it would be indecorous to join in the dancing. A further pointer is given indirectly by Nichols, who pillories Hogarth for his ignorance of etiquette in allowing the bride and groom to dance with each other at their wedding (Nichols's knowledge of correct behaviour in such matters may well have been better than Ireland's, who dismisses the criticism in 1799). From what we now know of Hogarth, it is highly unlikely that he would have made a mistake of this sort, and fitting the series into the suggested time-scale would solve the problem. It would also be relevant in the sense that, as the first series began its descent into tragedy with the disintegration of a once-great estate, it would be fitting for the contrasting series to take as its conclusion the felicitous transfer of a well-run estate from one generation to the next, since inheritance and the management of property often form the mainspring of Hogarth's moral tales.

The painting remained in Hogarth's studio until his death, and his own high estimation of it is shown by the fact that he adapted the design for Plate II of his Analysis of Beauty, published in 1753 . This changes the Jacobean setting to a very different Palladian one, and transforms the leading couple into aristocratic personages, in some editions even into the Prince and Princess of Wales. This design is no longer part of a narrative, but a purely didactic work to illustrate his theory that the serpentine ‘Line of Grace and Beauty’ lies at the basis of all that was inherently pleasing to the eye, in this instance in the weaving lines of a country dance and the graceful deportment of the leading couple. That he was already deeply involved with this theory by 1745, the presumed date of this picture, can be seen from the fact that he gave the ‘Line’ a prominent place in his ‘Self-portrait with a Pug Dog’ of that year (N00112). It is therefore quite possible that he planned from the outset that his ‘happy’ series should illustrate his theories of true harmony not only on a moral plane, but also on the level of design, albeit in a much more spontaneous and less didactic fashion than in the later print.

Published in:
Elizabeth Einberg and Judy Egerton, The Age of Hogarth: British Painters Born 1675-1709, Tate Gallery Collections, II, London 1988

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