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BY DESIGN : An Era of Dress : At a Time When Fashion Was Thought Frivolous, William Hogarth's Art Found Meaning and Beauty in Women's Wear

November 02, 1995|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

William Hogarth relished women and their clothes. He loved the curves of their skirts and the things they did with their hair.

As is clear in "Depictions of Women by William Hogarth and His Contemporaries," a delightful little show at the Huntington, the great English artist and satirist was not disgusted by women, nor bored by them, as so many 18th-Century men were. Instead, he was fascinated by women of every social class and occupation--from grand ladies to girls who sold shrimp.

Women are at the center of many of Hogarth's oils and the prints he and others made from them, art historian Patricia Crown points out. "He thinks women are interesting; he thinks they are worth looking at, and he seems to like them," says Crown, the curator of the show and a professor of art history at the University of Missouri, Columbia.

Such views were rare indeed, Crown says. While Hogarth was doing objective, even affectionate portraits of women, his contemporaries often dismissed them as silly geese--or worse. (Jonathan Swift's "A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed," with its description of a rent-a-goddess stripping off her fake eyebrows made of mouse hide and wiping off her glass eye, offers unsettling insight into the majority view, Crown says.)

Rarer still was Hogarth's enthusiasm for female fashion. Most 18th-Century thinkers believed fashion was frivolous, if not wicked. The standard take on women's clothes was, Crown says: "Ha, ha, aren't they ridiculous. Bad, bad, aren't they expensive. You're wasting your husband's money--and they don't make you look very good anyway."

Hogarth thought otherwise. Clothes were delightful to see. The body clothed was more beautiful than the body exposed. Clothes made the body articulate, where the nude form was mute. Clothes gave the body a rich and changing language.

"He approved of artifice," says Crown, who speculates that Hogarth thought of women arranging their skirts and hats, ruffles and bows, as artists, just as he was with his paints and copper plates.

The reasons behind Hogarth's affection for women and their clothes may have been simple. He had a happy marriage. He knew the "needle trades" from childhood. And his sisters Mary and Ann owned a shop that sold children's clothes. One of the most charming pieces in the show is a shop card he made for their store. With Hogarth, every picture tells a story, even a shop card. It shows an 18th-Century coming of age: a little boy of about 3, still dressed in skirts, about to get his first big-boy breeches.

There's a marked difference between Hogarth's oils and his engravings. He usually painted his images first, then made engravings of them that had much more detail. The medium often changes the emotional message. The painting of "The Savoyard Girl" (1749), recently acquired by the Huntington, shows an intriguing beauty, dark and mysterious in her allure. The same image in the print becomes an acid lampoon of the scandalous affair between the roly-poly Duke of Cumberland and a humble street performer.

Hogarth documented the teeming life of one of the great cities of the world. Part of the appeal of the show is that his London is so like our Los Angeles. In the 18th Century, England's small towns must have seemed like Purgatory compared to life in the metropolis of which Samuel Johnson could say, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life." Such cities are always magnets for the gifted, the lovely, the hungry, the weird.

A girl who has been told she is pretty takes a deep breath and decides to take a chance on fame and fortune in the big city. Does this sound familiar? No, we are not talking about some tragic little Nebraska cheerleader turned Hollywood sleaze queen. We are talking about Hogarth's immortal "A Harlot's Progress" (1732), a visual essay in six chapters (all on display in San Marino) of the rise and fall of Kate Hackabout.

You can look at a Hogarth print and smile and think you understand, but, the truth is, without a guide you will miss everything but the topic sentence. Hogarth had the eye of an artist--keen, ruthless--but he had the soul of a novelist, an expansive novelist who would rather leave in than leave out. "I think he was easily bored," Crown says. "He couldn't just do straight pictures. He had to put in 552 extra things."

The uninitiated are unlikely to figure out that the plump singer in Plate IV of "Marriage a la Mode" (1745) is a castrato, one who has paid for his sweet voice with the removal of his testicles. Or to notice in Plate I of "A Rake's Progress" that the young man has cut a patch for his shoe from the family Bible. "He's more interested in his sole than in his soul, " Crown explains, with a laugh. "Get it?"

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