In the frivolous 18th-Century Age of Rococo, artistic fantasy saw woman as a creature as unreal as a Barbie doll. She was either a goddesses of surpassing moral virtue who looked sexy, or a sex object who looked innocent. But the 18th Century also saw the dawn of the Enlightenment.
Thinkers tried to make sense of the animal that we are. A few artists had the objectivity to insist that woman was a fully realized, flesh-and-blood creature as capable of nuances and extremes, virtue and folly, as any man.
In England the principal advocate of this view was the leading artistic innovator of the day, William Hogarth. The artist’s genius for social satire is legendary. Now, a timely exhibition at the Huntington Gallery focuses on one of the two principal actors in his Vanity Fair in “Depictions of Women by William Hogarth and His Contemporaries.” Art historian Patricia Crown organized the show as guest curator. It consists of about 34 prints and three oil paintings by or after the master. The show was inspired by the Huntington’s recent acquisition of Hogarth’s little painting, “The Savoyard Girl.”
Savoyards were wandering street musicians whose favorite instrument was the hurdy-gurdy. The one depicted here in juicy strokes is an appealing ragamuffin certain to remind visitors of Eliza Doolittle of George Bernard Shaw’s modern classic “Pygmalion.” The point of that story is that a street-smart urchin girl is ultimately a match for an intelligent but stuffy upper-crust professor.
Hogarth’s work reflects acceptance of the proposition that Homo sapiens is a deeply flawed species. In his universe--largely London--bawdy behavior, superstition, vanity and greed are to be made fun of but taken as human. A little pair of paintings on loan from the Getty Museum titled, “Before and After” makes the point.
It depicts a young couple in dalliance upon a bed. In the first scene the boy is all ardor, the girl reticent. In the second he is slaked, she now enthusiastic. There is nothing condemnatory here. This is timeless, amusing, animal, human behavior.
Hogarth shrugs at the female stereotyping so unfashionable today. “Sir Francis Dashwood at His Devotions” depicts a decadent aristocrat kneeling at an altar. The object of his worship is a flesh-and-blood Venus miniaturized into a fetish. Hogarth finds the behavior kinky and risible but only a small step toward the reprehensible. There are shadings along the path.
The exploitation of innocence is a more serious matter. In the artist’s famous, “A Harlot’s Progress,” a naive country girl arrives in the city seeking honest work. She is inducted into prostitution by a procuress. In this bit Hogarth shows woman capable of real villainy, but there’s a worse actor in the scene. In the background a minister rides off to promote his own fortunes instead of aiding the girl.
Hogarth’s century produced the idea of the social contract, a notion largely ascribed to the British philosopher John Locke. It holds that those in power are responsible to those below. There is little worse in Hogarth’s world than the abuse of high office. Thus when the harlot’s fortunes fail, the blame falls on an aristocratic zealot whose reform campaigns are really a ploy to make himself famous.
The true idealists of the age were sincere, but philosophers like Thomas Hobbes tried to ground their aspirations in realism. Hogarth’s work reflects a kind of tolerant tough-mindedness. In cycles like “The Rake’s Progress” the wastrel ways of the youth are merely foolish. The real dangers he faces are debtor’s prison and madness brought on by syphilis, the AIDS of that epoch.
The real hero of the Rake series, according to Crown’s interpretation, is a young woman he rejects in the first scene. He has made her pregnant but breaks his promise to marry, giving her money instead. She avoids the self-pitying option of pickling her brain in gin, has the child and becomes a self-sustaining milliner. She returns to her true love, cleaving to him to a bitter end.
In today’s terms, Hogarth’s women rejected the Barbie role of the time reflected in illustrations for Samuel Richardson’s popular novel, “Pamela.” They rejected the cult of victimization in favor of competence, resiliency and passion. They could assume the form of the Rake’s loyal mate, free-spirited actress, courtesan or numerous other social roles. Such women were not Hogarth’s fantasies.
Many of the actors in his art were real people, including his own largely feminine family. He delighted in aristocratic women like Villiers Clara Pitt and Elizabeth Chudleigh who, in turn, delighted in flaunting convention. Women, if anyone in Hogarth’s world, play the three-dimensional parts.
* “Depictions of Women by William Hogarth and His Contemporaries,” the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, through Jan. 7. Closed Mondays. (818) 405-2290.