- Extended catalogue entry
Early Georgian Portraits Catalogue
by William Hogarth
17 3/4 in. x 16 3/4 in. (451 mm x 425 mm)
Inscriptionback to top
A manuscript label (early 19th century?) Portrait of W. Hogarth/painted by himself probably from the stretcher bar is now in the picture dossier; also in the dossier labels of the 1857, 1862, 1867 and 1868 exhibitions. The white chalk marks of the 1869 sale 252/July 10/69/50 still visible on back of canvas before relining in 1971.
This portraitback to top
Hogarth etched the picture seven times from c.1758 to 1764. Following a trial of the head and two undated states, the fourth, and first dated state, is lettered Wm Hogarth SERJEANT PAINTER to His MAJESTY .../March 29, 1758. This appointment was made on 16 July 1757. In the etchings, as opposed to NPG 289, the artist's cap nearly covers his ear, a pot and brush have been introduced left of the chair, a book with a loose page from the Analysis of Beauty leans against the easel and there is a volume in an alcove behind. After the fourth state, the artist's expression, like that of the muse, becomes progressively more serious; the mask finally turns into a satyr's head.  These differences, however, do not affect the basic design. NPG 289, as we know it, was probably more or less completed by March 1758, with the name presumably deriving from the etchings in which the word 'Comedy' appeared first on the fore-edge of the book held by the muse and, in the last two states, on the base of the pillar. The title line, by the last state, had been contracted simply to William Hogarth - 1764.
The phrase 'painting of the comic muse' is probably due to Hogarth's early biographer John Nichols (1745-1826) who first described the painting in the second edition of his Biographical Anecdotes, 1782,  when the picture was in the Hogarth house at Chiswick. Nichols' relations with Jane Hogarth, the artist's widow, may well have precluded a personal visit (Adam Walker tended to act as intermediary) and the account may therefore have come from Mrs Hogarth herself. According to Paulson  she probably corrected and revised the sheets of Nichols' first edition of the Anecdotes. After noting 'His own portrait, sitting and painting the Muse of Comedy', and various engravings, Nichols continues: 'The original from which this plate is taken, is in Mrs Hogarth's possession at Chiswick. A whole length of herself, in the same size, is its companion. They are both small pictures'.  By 1790, at the sale of Mrs Hogarth's property from the house in Leicester Square, the pendant picture had apparently become separated from NPG 289. Lot 48, 'Two portraits of Lady Thornhill and Mrs Hogarth', hardly answer Nichols' description. Nor can it be the life-size half length now in the Rosebery collection, even if rightly named.  The title 'Portrait of Hogarth, painting the figure of Comedy' was associated with NPG 289 when it was first exhibited and so catalogued in 1814, at the British Institution exhibition devoted to the works of eminent British painters recently deceased.
At the Camden sale, 1841, it was described as 'Hogarth in the painting room, painting the figure of Comedy'. This is not without interest since detailed examination has lately revealed earlier ideas in which the painting room was considerably larger and the figure of Comedy apparently, at one time, not included. The painting seems to have been finished in its frame, the rectangle of the final composition (16 x 15 in.) stopping about one inch short of the edge of the canvas, some of which was turned over the previous stretcher. On the surface of the completed area itself there is relatively little sign of alteration but a thin line of yellow down the inside of the easel leg indicates a slight shift of position and the cap, as in the etching, looks as if it might once have been pulled down to his ear. However, in the margin beyond the finished surface there are certain passages which the artist has not quite obliterated. These, and others under the surface, were first seen in a preliminary radiograph taken in 1968 and later, more clearly, in 1971. The following discussion relates to findings after the second radiograph.  It should be remembered, when interpreting the radiograph, that pigments with a high lead content read whitest (being opaque to x-ray) whereas passages in pigments with low lead content may be undetected.
The radiograph shows Hogarth still in the centre of the picture but the canvas he is working on no longer faces him but is behind, and to the left. The easel on which it stands near the back of the studio is cut at the top and has on it a canvas with a nude figure, or figures, too indistinct to be interpreted. In keeping with the earlier composition, there are indications, albeit blurred, that the sitter's body was more upright and the position of the legs disposed accordingly. He was also perhaps seated on a stool rather than the chair. In the finished version the diagonal lengthening of the coat helps to emphasise the forward-leaning pose and what was probably the right leg is now his left, with the present right leg presumably added to bring the legs towards the spectator and in appropriate relationship to the final placing of the easel. There is no comic muse but instead a model is seen seated on a throne which, in the later version, coincides with the bottom of the canvas on the easel. Painted in a high lead pigment, it comes through strongly on the radiograph, possibly obscuring other details. The model, almost certainly male, has a band below his right knee. The legs appear to be crossed, and may well be, but the right hip is wider than the left and the two halves of the torso do not lie in the same plane. This may represent two separate attempts at the model in profile. The raised arm also suggests alternative positions.
The seated model might conceivably be connected with one of Hogarth's large historical paintings such as 'Paul before Felix', delivered to Lincoln's Inn in 1748, returned to the artist and retouched in 1751.  The pose is, however, not close and, as already stated, it is uncertain whether the legs are in fact crossed. In 1756 Hogarth completed another and even larger biblical history, the altarpiece at St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, but here again it is impossible to trace any clear connection between the one likely figure, a soldier with naked back in the left wing of the altar, and the vague form on the canvas. Nor is there any evidence relating the model to the artist's academic nudes of the 1730s (A. P. Oppé, The Drawings of William Hogarth, 1948, pls 23-25) or with his composition of Garrick as Richard III, c.1745, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. The subject, therefore, in the original design, remains unidentified.
Other differences are found in the accessories and background. On the floor below the model, for example, are some unresolved shapes including perhaps drapery surmounted by what looks like the mask of a satyr. To the left, a pug dog lifts a leg over two framed pictures which are, it may be suggested, old masters. At any rate, they are not portraits. There may have been drapery down the left edge of the picture and the line where the floor meets the back wall, in the larger studio, is higher. The continuation of this line, in the left hand margin, is still visible. Dark shapes on the back wall suggest small pictures or prints. All of the above has been painted out.
The evolution of the composition, a painting super-imposed on an earlier idea, may lie not only in the artist's wish to simplify the design but also in his decision to present a less provocative image of himself. 
Footnotesback to top
1) R. Paulson, Hogarth: His Life, Art and Times, 1971, I, pp 237-38.
2) J. B. Nichols, Anecdotes of William Hogarth, 1782, p 295.
3) R. Paulson, Hogarth: His Life, Art and Times, 1971, I, pp 203, II, 475-76.
4) J. B. Nichols, Anecdotes of William Hogarth, 1782, p 295.
5) R. Paulson, Hogarth: His Life, Art and Times, 1971, I, p 203, pl.67. Lady Catherine Manners, died 17 February 1780, aged 79, wife of Henry Pelham has also been suggested as the sitter.
6) Taken with the canvas off the stretcher and laid flat.
7) R. Paulson, Hogarth: His Life, Art and Times, 1971, II, p 258, pls 235a, b; R. Paulson, ‘Paul before Felix, Reconsidered', Burlington Magazine, CXIV, April 1972, pp 233-37.
8) Kerslake, 'The Hidden Hogarth', Sunday Times, 11 July 1971.
Physical descriptionback to top
Close shaven head, blue eye, dark grey eyebrow; cap pushed back from forehead, open white shirt, green velvet coat, brown breeches, grey stockings, black shoes with silver buckles; a palette knife in his right hand, palette and brushes in his left; seated in a substantial mahogany armchair; on the easel a canvas with a figure [Comedy] laid-in in white, a book under her right arm and mask in her left hand; dark green background, greenish-brown floor.
Conservationback to top
Some thinness, previously covered by retouching, in the hair and under the chin; cleaned and relined 1971 when extensive overpainting along the top and right edges, old retouchings and darkened varnish were removed; paint showing signs of lifting near his right hip was secured; small damages and tack holes repaired and branched craquelure touched in. The original canvas, turned over the edge of a stretcher (not the original) measuring approximately 16 ½ x 15 ½ in., was replaced in 1971 with a larger stretcher allowing the original canvas, now measuring 17 ¾ x 16 ¾ in., to be laid flat. A contemporary frame replaces the earlier one made in August 1869.
Provenanceback to top
Purchased 1869, from Agnew's, Manchester; as with most of his pictures, retained by the artist and bequeathed to his widow.  First referred to by Nichols in 1782  as in the Hogarth house at Chiswick, it appeared in the posthumous sale, 1790, of Mrs Hogarth's property (see NPG 121), lot 46 of ‘Pictures by Hogarth': ‘a ditto [his own portrait] whole-length painting'; the Asscher catalogue notes that it was ‘small' and fetched '13.2.6'; the buyer's name is not known. In 1814 it was exhibited by the Marquess Camden at the British Institution (95) and at the posthumous sale, Christie's, 12 June 1841, undertaken by his executors, it was lot 36, said to have been acquired by his father Charles Pratt (1714-94), created baron, 1765, and Earl Camden, 1786, ‘from the painter'; this is obviously improbable. In the 1841 sale it was bought, with a portrait of the pugilist Broughton, lot 8, by Smith for £54.12s presumably for the collector H. R. Willett (d. 1858).  Exhibition labels show ownership as follows: in 1857, R. P. Willet; 1862 and 1867 Willet L. Adye and in 1868 W. Adye; at Christie's, 10 July 1869, lot 50, ‘Pictures and Sketches by Hogarth collected by the late H.R. Willett', bought Agnew's.
1) R. Paulson, Hogarth: His Life, Art and Times, 1971, II, p 513.
2) J. Nichols, Biographical Anecdotes of William Hogarth, 1782, p 295.
3) 'At his Chambers, in the Albany, Piccadilly, aged 75, Hanry [sic] Ralph Willett, esq., of Merly-house. The deceased gentleman was a Freemason, and the Provincial Grand Master of the Province of Dorset', Gentleman's Magazine, 1858, vol. 254 (NS 4), p 117.
Exhibitionsback to top
British Institution, 1814 (95), 1848 (144); ‘Paintings by Modern Masters', Manchester, 1857 (15); ‘International Exhibition', London, 1862 (1); Second Exhibition of National Portraits, South Kensington, 1867 (364); Leeds, 1868 (1090); ‘Masterpieces of English Painting', Chicago, 1946 (7); ‘Hogarth', Manchester, 1954 (43); ‘British Self-Portraits', Arts Council, 1962 (8); ‘Prints and Drawings in Honour of the Bicentenary of William Hogarth (1697-1764)', British Museum, 1964-65 (no catalogue published).
Reproductionsback to top
Etched by the artist, seven states between c.1758 and 1764, R. Paulson, Hogarth: His Life, Art and Times, 1971 (204); later copies (F. O'Donoghue and Sir Henry M. Hake, Catalogue of Engraved British Portraits ... in the British Museum, 1908-25, 23 and 24-29).
This extended catalogue entry is from the out-of-print National Portrait Gallery collection catalogue: John Kerslake, Early Georgian Portraits, Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1977, and is as published then. For the most up-to-date details on individual Collection works, we recommend reading the information provided in the Search the Collection results on this website in parallel with this text.
View all known portraits for William Hogarth