William Hogarth self-portrait.


Born: 1697 : : : Died: 1764
Job Description: Engraver
Worked in: Fine and commercial art
Noted for: The Harlot's Progress, Marriage à la Mode, and more
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The art of using pictures to tell stories, as practiced by modern cartoonists and animators, is, as we know, an ancient one. The Bayieux Tapstry, Trajan's Column … even paintings on cave walls are an early form of what we now call comics, if not pre-technological groping toward animation. The practice long pre-dates printing, but the ability to reproduce illustrations in multiple copies, through woodcuts and engravings, opened whole new vistas, and made it possible for illustrators, who had been with us since time immemorial, to become published cartoonists. William Hogarth was among the …

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… earlier to combine his artistry with printing technology to produce narratives in picture form that could be enjoyed by many widely-separated viewers, and remain broadly disseminated even to this very day.

Hogarth was born in London November 10, 1697, and was apprenticed to a silversmith by the time he was 16. He gravitated toward artistic pursuits, and by age 23, was running his own engraving shop. From an early age, he took an interest in the teeming masses around him. While he made his living producing trade cards (forrunners of modern business cards) for wealthy clients, his pleasure was to sketch the common people of London.

Before long, he was combining the major interests of his life. The ordinary people he observed, in all walks of life, became subjects of his engravings, as well as serious painting. With his keen eye, he was also producing works that nowadays would find expression as newspaper editorial cartoons. His Emblematical Print on the South Sea Scheme (1721) ridiculed the investors who credulously bid up prices for shares in a scheme remembered today as "The South Sea Bubble", in which many great fortunes were lost in the collapse of the over-valued stock.

Other stand-alone prints by Hogarth include The Lottery (1724), The Large Masquerade Ticket (1726) and A Just View of the British Stage (1724). He also did book illustrations.

In 1732, he painted a series of six scenes in what the later cartoonist Will Eisner (The Spirit, Sheena) called "sequential art", titled A Harlot's Progress. Those paintings were lost to fire in 1755, but engravings based on them survive. He followed that work in 1735, with A Rake's Progress, in which the life of a once-wealthy wastrel is depicted in a series of eight engravings. These weren't exactly modern comics, but did establish Hogarth as an early master of what later evolved into comics art.

Hogarth's reputation is largely based on his 1753 book, The Analysis of Beauty, in which he attempted to codify a lifetime's experience in the visual arts. That, plus his pioneering work in depicting the common, sometimes seamy and vulgar, life of the society around him, ensure his immortality. Hogarth died October 26, 1764,


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Text ©2009 Donald D. Markstein. Art © William Hogarth's work is in the public domain.