William Hogarth’s Depictions of the Licentious Lifestyles

During the beginning of the Restoration period, King Charles’ infidelities seemed to condone promiscuous behavior amongst the people of the era. The freshness and excitement of this newfound sexual freedom seemed to excite a rebirth of promiscuity, but the snowball effect had to slow down at some point. Seen through the work of William Hogarth, the tendency for rake-like behavior lost its momentum at the end of the Restoration period. Of course the frequency of infidelitous acts did not come to a halt at the beginning of the 18th century, or any other century thereafter, but it did take a different course.

Hogarth, along with many others, began to see the destructive behavior and the harsh demise suffered by the scandalous rake. Despite their ability to brag of numerous evenings of unadulterated love-making, the rake’s existence was a sad and lonely one, although never admitted by the obliviously satisfied playboy.

Hogarth’s life had begun in a simple fashion and within that simple life he was able to make great accomplishments in several fields. Hogarth can be attributed to having the first ideas of copyrighting and in addition to his innovative thoughts on publishing rights, he was an avid painter and print-maker. Son to a scholar, Hogarth said that he always had his wits about him, and he always had his eye on the goings-on.

Hogarth’s medium of choice was the copper plate, as opposed to the pen and paper; his stories were told in etchings or paintings as opposed to prose or poetry, but his thoughts and beliefs were understood just the same. In his eight-plate piece, The Rake’s Progress, Hogarth depicts a wanna-be playboy, Tom Rakewell, floundering his new-found inheritance. Hogarth stated that he witnessed many of these counterfeit individuals in many popular venues, and emulated their behavior in his series of engravings, through the character of Rakewell.

Each and every plate of the series depicts the despicable Rakewell as a thoughtless, selfish and squandering individual. He spends his money on orgies and fancy clothes, commits his time to prostitutes and murderers and disregards the relationships of those who care for him. He is seen groping prostitutes, squandering money and languishing with the sinful.
Immaturities and deceptions such as those copied by the Restoration rake consumed the early 18th century youth, but several such as Hogarth swore to advertise their folly. Each of the artist’s plates depict Rakewell as somewhat of a sloth, a wanna-be and a good-for-nothing. In the first plate he is responsible for impregnating a young woman, seen crying in the corner of his first plate, but later marries an elderly woman, who must hold a wealth of money. All of the rake’s behaviors are doomed for failure and the remainder of Hogarth’s pieces relay his utter demise, as opposed to his supposed “progress.”

After reviewing Hogarth’s series of plates and after being given the story of William Wycherley and his group of friends, many parallels can be seen between their actions and utter demise. In the fourth plate, Rakewell has been cornered by debtors and the only individual to come to his financial aid is the woman who he had impregnated and abandoned. While Wycherley was not known for having mistreated any pregnant mistresses, his downfall came through the form of financial decay.

In the remaining plates, Rakewell never seems to learn his lesson. He is seen gambling in the sixth plate, although he had in the past had financial difficulties. His plans for receiving a small fortune from his elderly bride did not pan out and he is beginning to see himself as a failure. According to Hogarth’s plates, however, Rakewell’s discovery is too little too late.

In the final plate in Hogarth’s series, which is set in Bedlam (The Bethlehem Hospital for the insane), the audience is able to see a ruined Rakewell posed in a disconcerting state, pulling at his hair in a crazed manner. This pathetic fate was also realized by Wycherley’s writer and rake friend, Nathaniel Lee. Lee, who died at the age of 47, had spent three years in Bedlam, passing away shortly after his release.

After examining Hogarth’s insight on the early 18th century rake, it is easy to continue with the statement that infidelitous acts will always be a staple of society, however, while the acts themselves may be seen as having longevity, it is also easy to conclude that the role of the rake will lead many on that same path to an early and lonely grave.

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