Bringing out the Beast in Hogarth - another Progress Report on what lies behind the Curtain in the National Gallery’s Marriage a La Mode.
22nd October 2007
A digitised version of the captions to the illustrations will be found on the ARTISTS ILLUSTRATED page.
The Horrible Hogarth’s speciality of inserting pictures within his pictures has distracted writers with a stronger focus than me from the job in hand. At the moment I am on a detour from a detour and have been having a look at the two or conceivably three bestiality images in the National Gallery’s Marriage a La Mode. These are to be found not in the painting with the curtained-off picture but in the fourth of the six paintings, The Toilette, sometimes called The Morning Levee, which at the present rate of progress, we shall get to shortly before the End of the World or Phil Spector putting on an orange jump suite, whichever comes later.
This is like counting angels dancing on the head of a needle and it stems from wondering (in a scientific way and so forth) whether the image behind the curtain in the second painting, as envisaged by Hogarth, could take the form of a zoophilic relationship between either a) man and beast, or b) woman and beast. And, if either of a) or b), was the act committed in the missionary position (approved by the Church although not when it involves mixing the species) or a tergo (a.k.a. doggie fashion). Doggie fashion is not approved by the Church when a human is involved but is ok between beasts. And if any of the foregoing (and regardless of what the Church thinks) was it the beast or the human party on top?
In the classic art of the Renaissance images of bestiality hardly raised hardly an eyebrow and could be justified, as always, by reference to Greek mythology. Most of the bestiality stories were supplied by Jupiter, Numero Uno on Mount Olympus, who employed a modus operandi which involving disguising himself as an animal so as to get his wicked way with desirable mortals. Usually females, the exception being the boy Ganymede where Jupiter showed up at the scene disguised as an eagle.
Hogarth’s pictures within pictures include, in addition to a Ganymede, a Jupiter and Io where Hogarth painted a rampant cloud or (depending on whether you believe me or Judy Egerton) bear enfolding, in the upright missionary position, an “ecstatic” (per Judy Egerton) Io, and a Leda and the Swan. Ecstasy and being fucked against a wall do not normally go together but in art and mythology the rules are different. Since my last posting I have been taking a scientific look at whether it could have been Leda with her significant Swan who Hogarth had originally intended to put behind the curtain. It could of course have been Jupiter and Io. The thinking either way is that, needing something to put on the wall in the fourth painting, or on a silver salver bought at auction, Hogarth abandoned the idea of using either of these images in the second painting and instead curtained off the space leaving only a male leg showing.
If the man’s leg was always going to be part of the picture behind the curtain it is necessary to consider the possibility that Hogarth’s original plan was to show beast-on-man. Personally I think that this can be discounted because Hogarth’s pictures within pictures almost always referenced known works of art, engravings of which were widely available in his time and were thus known to his prospective customers. I can think of only two precedents in art for beast-on-man (or woman) - other than the boy Ganymede - and it is doubtful whether the respective images, by their nature, were in circulation. Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling portrayal of a serpent fellating an art critic who he hated would have been too gross for public consumption (no other artist has gone there) and the few attempts at achieving a plausible depiction of Pasiphae inside a wooden model of a cow were, as stated in my posting of a few days ago, very unconvincing.
Returning to the Horrible Hogarth’s Tete a Tete and the Great Curtained Picture Mystery my inclination, if we were to go down the Bestiality route, is to think Leda and the Swan because there are precedents in art for a number of variations in the way in which the act can be carried out. There is Swan on Woman missionary position (the National Gallery’s three Leda’s (counting-in Hogarth’s salver) and most of the Old Master representations show it this way. There is Swan on Woman a tergo, anatomically feasible albeit against the Church’s doctrine in more than one sense, and very rarely seen in art. And there is the Woman on Swan cowgirl style which is rarer still. The only example of the latter that I can find is a brooch made by the goldsmith and sculptor Benvenuto Cellini (1500-71) one of whose principal patrons was Pope Clement VII.
As must be clear from these progress reports, trying to get into the Hogarthian mind to see what he was thinking of putting behind the curtain requires a deal of thinking on everyone’s part. I have already laid out my stall in the first Progress Report in which I offered for consideration a female on male cowgirl image which has the advantage of being compatible with the foot projecting from behind the curtain that can only be that of a man lying on his back. The possibility of an element of bestiality cannot be excluded, however, and I think it right to lay it the pros and cons before visitors to this site so that they can make an informed judgement for themselves.