Douglas Fordham, in "William Hogarth's The March to Finchley and the Fate of Comic History Painting," shows that William Hogarth and Henry Fielding draw a definitive generic connection between painting and writing. They discuss their championing of a new type of visual and written description, called "comic history," and defend its merits from a potentially unfavorable reception. Inherent in this new genre is a revision of past preferences — specifically, the previous placement of history paintings on the highest step of the artistic hierarchy. Hogarth and Fielding aim to pull history from the aristocratic realm into the lap of the lower classes and to rid it of troubling idealization and epic flourishes. They do not, however, mean to pull the genre so low that it demonstrates only caricature. To be avoided is the purely reductive comedy which boils down every aspect of a person to its most basic level of signification, what is referred to as the burlesque in the following passage from Fordham's article:

In 1743 Hogarth published a subscription ticket to Marriage à la Mode entitled Characters and Caricaturas. Containing over one hundred faces tightly packed together, Characters and Caricaturas sought to educate those . . . who insisted on misinterpreting his work. Great artists, he contended, engaged in the delineation of "character," while burlesque required little more than "caricature" . . . At the bottom of the ticket Hogarth clarified, "For a farther Explanation of the Difference Betwixt Character & Caricatura See ye Preface to Joh. Andrews." In the preface to Joseph Andrews Henry Fielding presented a remarkable new theory that offered a common agenda for author and painter. According to Fielding, "Now what Caricatura is in Painting, Burlesque is in Writing; and in the same manner the Comic Writer and the Painter correlate to each other." Fielding promoted his novels and Hogarth's paintings as the beginning of a new artistic genre, which he called "Comic history", Fielding continues,

Indeed, no two Species of Writing can differ more widely than the Comic and the Burlesque: for as the latter is ever the Exhibition of what is monstrous and unnatural, and where our Delight, if we examine it, arises from the surprizing Absurdity, as in appropriating the Manners of the highest to the lowest, or è converso; so in the former, we should ever confine ourselves strictly to Nature from the just Imitation of which, will flow all the Pleasure we can this way convey to a sensible Reader."

In short, burlesque consists of unnatural exaggeration, whereas comic history displays a full range of closely observed human triumphs and foibles.

To support this new genre, the people in Hogarth and Fielding's works should seem like unique, feeling individuals (in order for the narrative to take hold), yet they should be able to represent a certain social type (in order to offer trenchant social commentary). Hogarth and Fielding thus strike a middle ground in between character and caricature: some generalization is necessary in satire but not so much that the audience looses interest in the individual subject portrayed.

Questions

1. What are the defining characteristics of the new genre which Hogarth and Fielding champion here? Is Hogarth successful in avoiding caricature in his paintings?

2. What common techniques are to be found between caricature in painting and burlesque in writing? Is Fielding correct when he makes the analogy "what Caricatura is in Painting, Burlesque is in Writing?"

3. Many of Hogarth's works are serialized. How is this form conducive to the formation of an individual's character? Is the viewer able to make out a subject's character in only one plate of a series? If so, what are the visual traits that lead one into forming a verbal description of someone's character?

4. When viewing a painting or reading a work, Fielding states that "our DelightÉarises from the surprising Absurdity, as in appropriating the Manners of the highest to the lowest." How do Hogarth's paintings demonstrate this carnevalesque overturning?

References

Fordham, Douglas. "William Hogarth's The March to Finchley and the Fate of Comic History Painting." Art History 27.1 (2004): 95-128.


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Last modified 20 September 2007