Hogarth’s Christian Doctrine

Alvan Bregman
University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign

Anyone interested in the works of William Hogarth will greet a new book by Ronald Paulson with enthusiasm. Over a long and distinguished career, Paulson has consistently woven together threads from eighteenth-century artistic, intellectual and literary history to contextualize Hogarth’s works, and has used Hogarth’s works to shine light back on the world from which they emerge. Hogarth’s Harlot: Sacred Parody in Enlightenment England (Johns Hopkins, 2003) continues this exceptional run.

While the book is very much about Hogarth—more particularly about A Harlot’s Progress (1732)—it also contains substantial studies of Milton, Pope, Smart and Blake. Paulson does not stint: along the way we are also treated to noteworthy discussions on the paintings of Benjamin West, Joseph Wright of Derby, and John Zoffany; the sculpture of Louis-François Roubiliac; the libretti of Handel’s oratorios; and numerous other literary works. The volume is amply illustrated to support the text.

Paulson’s reading of A Harlot’s Progress builds upon his earlier treatment of the series in the first volume of his massive biographical and critical study, Hogarth.[1] In the course of that work, Paulson touched on several themes that concerned the Harlot, including the classical topos of the Choice of Hercules and the Christian topoi of the Visitation and the Annunciation. Paulson connected Hogarth’s Moll Hackabout not only to the Virgin Mary but to the biblical harlot Mary Magdalen. With the Jew in Plate 2 suggesting the embodiment of the Old Testament, the series was seen to presume the Christian succession and displacement of the Old with the New Testament. Concerning the classical theme, Paulson is now less insistent: the Harlot is more like Mary than like Hercules, because “she really has no choice; in the context of the Visitation, Nativity, and Last Supper, she is in a world not of classical choice but of Christian ecclesiastical myth” (117).

This new book takes these and other suggestions of theological content in A Harlot’s Progress and considers them in detail. Indeed, the chapter titles and subtitles of Hogarth’s Harlot constitute an outline of Christian doctrine, dealing as they do with “The Sacrament and the Eucharist,” “Blasphemy and Belief,” “Atonement,” “Incarnation,” “Redemption,” “Mediation,” and “Resurrection.” All of these issues are considered in their straightforward eighteenth-century English context, in order to explain how they were made into objects of “sacred parody” by Hogarth and the other artists discussed in the book.

In his Introduction, Paulson sets the stage by cogently presenting a “series of parallel modes of expression” that were operative in Hogarth’s Protestant England. These include “typology, sacramental metonymy, iconoclasm, ‘restoration,’ georgic recovery, travesty, deist deconstruction, and (in a way, a summation of all these) aesthetics” (24). We learn here to understand travesty as the “reclothing” of serious texts in demotic garb, and parody, as “an old text reinterpreted or reaccentuated into a new” (21). Paulson’s application of Enlightenment definitions of parody to sacred themes is meant only to “recall” Bakhtin’s definition of parodia sacra (Preface, xv). If medieval “sacred parody” involved seasonal license to ridicule sacred writings and thereby to evoke “holiday laughter,”[2] we see that the English Act of 1697 concerning blasphemy and profaneness did something quite the opposite.

Chapter 2 opens with a most interesting case in point. A portrait of the deist Thomas Woolston appears on the wall in Plate 2 of A Harlot’s Progress. Woolston, who in his writings sought to demystify (at least) Christ’s miracles, was found guilty of blasphemous libel in 1729. The man who laid the charges, Bishop Edmund Gibson, is depicted entering the Harlot’s chamber to arrest her in Plate 3. The Harlot uses one of Gibson’s tracts as a butter dish in the same plate. Paulson links these negative references to Gibson, a member of Walpole’s government, with other instances of opposition politics in the works of Swift, Nicholas Amhurst (editor of The Craftsman), and Bishop Hoadly. In his discussion of deist politics, Paulson also brings into focus the anti-Trinitarian doctrinist Samuel Clarke, whose portrait is displayed along with Woolston’s in Plate 2.

At the end of Chapter 2, Paulson disagrees with recent critics, such as David Solkin and Jenny Uglow, who have seen antisemitism at work in the portrayal of the Harlot’s Jewish keeper. This position is particularly interesting, since Paulson’s subsequent theological arguments will seek to establish the discourse of Antinomianism in Hogarth. Antinomianism is the doctrine which maintains that Christians were freed from the moral law of the Old Testament by virtue of God’s grace, as set forth in the New Testament. This doctrine, and Christian typology in general, reinterprets, and indeed rewrites, the Old Testament to new purposes. In every case, the religious position understood to be represented by the Jew is characterized as incomplete, vengeful, cruel, and repressive. Thus the denial of social antisemitism in Hogarth is counterbalanced by the discovery of an explicitly anti–OT doctrine in his works.

The five middle chapters of Hogarth’s Harlot are devoted to showing how various theological concepts are manifested in literary and artistic works of the English Enlightenment, and particularly in Hogarth. Throughout, Paulson’s explanations of the contemporary intellectual background are outstanding. He lays out his apt and varied source material with admirable clarity of expression and organization. The discussion of vicarious atonement in Chapter 3 begins with a review of medieval doctrine, takes root in a presentation of “Milton’s critique,” ranges through the empiricist writings of John Locke and Bernard Mandeville, and considers the implications of deism and Antinomianism. Thus Paulson sets the context for a series of startling applications, for example, the suggestion that the Harlot is a blemished sacrificial lamb (as Jesus was the unblemished lamb), who is destined to die in atonement [!] for the sins of society.

Incarnation, the subject of Chapter 4, is explained in the two ways it was understood in Hogarth’s time, as either a sign of divine condescension or of the exaltation of the human. The Calvinists took the first view while radical Protestants, such as the Antinomian Quaker James Nayler, chose the second view. Nayler was severely punished for blasphemy in 1656 because he portrayed himself as Christ; his works were collected and printed in 1716. Paulson compares the Harlot with Nayler because he says that Hogarth portrays her in the role of Christ, as well as of the two Marys. This is an instance where Paulson’s presentation of context is extremely convincing but the argument as a whole is weakened by assertion, if not circularity. Nevertheless, Paulson’s range is his strength. He goes on to link Hogarth to the tradition of Dürer and of Dutch Protestant artists, “rendering holy scenes as contemporary events” (142), and thus shores up the possibility that the Harlot was indeed cast as a low type in a high role.

At this point, Paulson takes up an important theme he has mentioned but not developed, namely, the transformation of Hogarth’s sacred parody into aesthetics. He compares the funereal scene in Harlot 6, which is designed as a parody of the Last Supper, with the subscription ticket to the Analysis of Beauty, which plays against the same image. Paulson’s point is that where Hogarth had humanized the Sacrament in A Harlot’s Progress, he later aestheticizes it in the Analysis of Beauty where, among other things, the serpentine line replaces the straight lines of the cross.

The fifth chapter has to do with Redemption, one result of the Incarnation. With aesthetics now in mind, Paulson considers Milton’s notion of “divine similitude” and the idea that the poet can “redeem” the fallen world through poetry. Addison’s “Pleasures of the Imagination” (Spectator no. 418) serves as an example, where the Imagination is said to perfect reality, correct its defects, and add beauties to Nature. By virtue of the “Whig aesthetics” of Shaftesbury, of Addison, and, Paulson argues, of Hogarth, the worship of the deity is ultimately replaced by “the enjoyment of beauty” (170). For a further demonstration of the redemptive quality of poetics, Paulson examines Pope’s Rape of the Lock and The Dunciad and then presents an opposite example, Swift’s “anti-aesthetics,” centered on the harlot Celia. But Hogarth’s position is shown to be complex: Hogarth is also said to share with Pope a “skepticism of Shaftesburian aesthetics—the subordination of the artist to critics and connoisseurs, the limiting of beauty to perfect harmony . . . and the assumption the sense of beauty equals virtue” (195). In such ways does Paulson fine-tune his argument, presenting his subject from different angles.

Under the topic of Mediation (Chapter 6), Paulson studies the role of many female figures (besides the Harlot) who are present in scenes created by Hogarth and his contemporaries. Paulson begins with a discussion of the libretti of Handel’s oratorios Esther, The Messiah, and Jephtha’s Daughter. He passes on to Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress, Plate 4, where Sarah Young stands between Rakewell and the bailiffs; to The Enraged Musician, with its central female figure; to Paul, Drusilla and Felix, where Drusilla occupies the space between the two main male characters; and so on. Clearly, there may be bad as well as good mediators; included among the bad mediators are the collectors, connoisseurs, and other “middlemen representing a false aesthetic” (239). Paulson’s argument helps us understand why Hogarth preferred to market his art directly through subscriptions.

The last of the doctrinal chapters has to do with Resurrection. The discussion focuses on the funerary sculptures of Louis-François Roubiliac, and then on a variety of Hogarth’s works, such as the Ascension altarpiece for the church of Saint Mary Redcliffe, and Tail-piece (1764), Hogarth’s very late parody of Roubiliac’s Hargrave monument. Paulson also considers the Election Prints (1754–58), which feature aspects of the repeal of the Jew Bill of 1753 and other Jewish themes.

The final two chapters are devoted to Christopher Smart and William Blake, respectively. Their direct connections with Hogarth’s works, and especially with A Harlot’s Progress, seem tenuous, although Paulson points out that Smart was friendly with Hogarth in the 1750s. Where and how Hogarth depicts cats in A Harlot’s Progress and elsewhere is interesting and instructive, but Smart’s cat Jeoffrey surely stands alone; similarly, Smart’s early journalistic persona as “Mary Midnight” can be tangential at best to the presence of Mother Needham in Plate 1 of A Harlot’s Progress. The real strength of the these last chapters is that the same background material adduced for Hogarth can shine light on the way both Smart and Blake use religious themes and imagery; points of comparison are bound to occur, and Paulson is incisive in discovering these.

Paulson argues that Hogarth and Smart both saw Incarnation in its aspect of raising the lowest, who in their suffering also atone for the sins of the great. But the transition from experiencing suffering to actually effecting atonement is still not clear to me, either for the fictional Harlot or the poet Smart. I am not convinced that Smart’s Christianizing changes in his versions of the Psalms in themselves redeem the “transgression, uncleanliness and lowness of the Levitical laws” (315), even if one adopts an Antinomian attitude toward Leviticus. Nevertheless, Paulson presents Smart in a clear and sympathetic light, with ample reference to the text, and with plenty of contextualization. The same can be said of his reading of Blake. Regardless of how close or far away from Hogarth’s influence Blake may have been, Paulson’s exposition is extremely good. The reader is well primed to understand the argument when it relates to Antinomianism doctrine, Miltonic dualism, and Hogarthian aesthetics.

Hogarth’s Harlot is an expression of Ronald Paulson’s skill as a writer and a critic, and as an extraordinary expert in the work and world of William Hogarth. It adds substantially to our understanding of A Harlot’s Progress, besides many other works, by Hogarth and by others. It brings alive the intellectual and religious controversies that underlie these works, to whatever extent. Its clarity and insight will enhance our understanding and its more controversial suggestions will stir debate, and from all this we will surely deepen our appreciation of a great English artist.


[1] Ronald Paulson, Hogarth: The ‘Modern Moral Subject,’ 1697–1732 (New Brunswick and London, 1991), 237–336.

[2] M.K. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin, 1981), 72.