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: Hogarth’s Satirical Humanism: The Sleeping Congregation


Merrill C. Rueppel

Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The Institute has been fortunate in acquiring an outstanding painting by William Hogarth dated 1728. This fine example of eighteenth-century English art, The Sleeping Congregation,1 is a notable addition to the Institute’s painting collection and will enhance the furnishings of the Queen Anne Room, where it can now be seen. It comes as the gift of Mrs. Lyndon M. King, who, with her mother Mrs. John Washburn, gave the Queen Anne Room in memory of Mr. John Washburn in 1932. The painting is not only typical of Hogarth’s early style, but is also of contemporary date with the period room.2 To supplement, and clarify, the subject matter of the painting, the Institute has also acquired, through the Mrs. Roy Pierson Memorial Fund and the Mrs. J. E. Spingarn Fund, two states of the engraving by Hogarth of the same title.3 Together, the three works constitute a whimsical social commentary on eighteenth-century manners, as well as a series of significant visual documents revealing the development of an artistic idea.The painting depicts in fanciful terms the interior of an English church sometime during morning service. In the high pulpit at the upper left, the Preacher, who has been tentatively identified as the Reverend Dr. John Theophilus Desaguliers,4 holds forth monotonously as the sand trickles slowly, grain by grain, through the hour glass at his elbow. Undoubtedly the only animation in this noble soul, apart from the feeble gesture of his left arm, is the occasional pause when he fussily wipes his mouth and brow with the large white handkerchief clutched in his right hand. The effect of his pious words on the other characters in this minor drama is devastating; all, without exception, are sound asleep. Directly beneath him, the portly clerk sleeps with his mouth clamped shut, his hands folded over his middle, his spectacles hooked over his thumb. Because of his bulk and the arms of his box, the clerk is able to maintain some semblance of decorum—unlike his two neighbors who doze with their heads askew, the one falling forward, the other leaning back against the stair rail. Other members of the congregation in the pews and balcony to the right have slipped down into various positions suggestive, appropriately, of sleeping sheep.In the manner of the present day cartoonist, Hogarth was unwilling to let even these descriptive details carry the meaning of the painting. To avoid the risk of anyone’s missing the point, he included an inscription on a small panel immediately to the right of Rev. Desaguliers. The text, taken from Matthew 11:28, reads: “Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, And I will give you rest.”The combination of text and the somewhat overdrawn details produced a work of pointed satire that probably initiated the series of general social satires for which Hogarth is best known. Although the years immediately following this painting were spent in the production of group portraits and so-called conversation pieces, his first major satirical series, The Harlot’s Progress, was painted about 1731, to be followed by the series, A Rake’s Progress, in 1735. The date 1728 on the Institute’s picture would, therefore, indicate that it is the first of the many pictures of its type.It is interesting to note, however, that the engraving of The Sleeping Congregation did not take place until October 26, 1736, eight years after the painting was completed. Hogarth’s common practice, beginning with the series The Harlot’s Progress, in 1731, was to make his engravings shortly after the painting was finished. This procedure was adopted out of economic necessity; his paintings sold with difficulty, but there was a popular demand for inexpensive prints that could be produced in large numbers and would thereby bring a relatively high return. Hogarth was quick to capitalize on this demand, and after 1732 virtually all of his satirical subjects appeared as both paintings and engravings. Probably motivated to explore the commercial possibilities of engravings after The Sleeping Congregation, he returned to the subject for reworking in the graphic medium eight years later.This conclusion is further indicated by the significant changes in both characters and action between the two versions. In the engraving (figure 1) the Preacher has been radically transformed and now hunches over the lectern reading the text with the aid of a magnifying glass. In addition, a supplementary text has been engraved on the side of the pulpit. Taken from Galatians 4:8, it reads:“I am afraid of you lest I have bestowed upon you labor in vain.”The most important change in treatment between the painting and the engraving is the interplay between the two secondary characters, the clerk and the sleeping maiden. In the engraved version, the clerk is not asleep but is using the slumbering congregation as a cover for his sidelong glance toward the maiden. Her costume has been altered sufficiently to reveal the generous bosom that provokes this glance, and in her hand she now holds her Prayer Book opened to the section “Of Matrimony.”This secondary action, together with the more complete definition of a few members of the congregation as specific human types, points up the satiric effect of the subject matter and creates broader interest in the action. It also rounds out the “stage” so that the dramatic composition is more balanced. This, it should be remembered, was of major importance to Hogarth. He explained:“Subjects I consider’d as writers do my Picture was my Stage and men and women my actors who were by Mean of certain Actions and express[ions] to Exhibit a dumb shew.”5While the painting reveals such an organization with the three main characters grouped in the left foreground in the broad manner of a theatrical backdrop, the composition of the engraving is far more calculated. Not only have many extraneous details been eliminated, but the characters themselves have been given a larger role. There is now a sense of dramatic action moving back and forth across the foreground of the stage while the background has become even less obtrusive and in no way distracts attention from the actors. The composition is tighter, the action more involved and the satire heightened.Although these changes, necessitated in part by the nature of the graphic medium, produced a print that had greater dramatic power than the painting on which it was based, most of the subtle characteristics of the painting were lost in the engraved version. Apart from the quality of the color, with its rich dark browns and delicate flesh tints, the sense of atmosphere that pervades the painting disappeared completely in the engraving. Contours were hardened in the print and, with the sharper contrasts of light and dark, one form was separated more distinctly from another. While this produced a certain clarity, it eliminated the quality of quiet, dusty air that fills the painting and gives it a greater sense of reality. In heightening the stage-like aspects of the subject for a more pointed satire, Hogarth destroyed much of the artistic subtlety and complexity that make the painting a distinguished work of art.The differences in treatment as well as in visual effectiveness of the two versions of the subject indicate the range of Hogarth’s talent and the diverse aspects of his art. In the painting of The Sleeping Congregation he introduced a type of subject which characterized most of his later work, and clearly demonstrated the skill that gave him a high place ion the ranks of English painters. In the later engraving of the subject he showed the thorough command of the graphic process that was to make him one of the greatest printmakers in the history of graphic art. But, perhaps most important, in both versions Hogarth revealed the selective eye and curious twist of mind that enabled him to see himself and his fellow men in all their folly, their weakness and their virtue, and to hold up to all men a mirror reflecting the nature of their humanity. In this, he spoke not only for his age, but for all time.Endnotes
  1. Dimensions: height 21 3/4 inches; width 18 1/4 inches. Oil on canvas, bearing the date 1728 on a plaque mounted on the column at lower right. Former collections: J. Rich, 1762; Sir Edward Walpole, 1782; John Follett, before 1833; Sir Francis Cook, 1911 (Cat. No. 399). Published: J. Nichols, Biographical Anecdotes of William Hogarth, 1782, p. 196; J. Nichols and G. Stevens, The Genuine Works of William Hogarth, Vol. II, p. 143; J. B. Nichols, Anecdotes of William Hogarth, 1833, p. 356; Austin Dobson, William Hogarth, 1902, pp. 59-60, 171; U. Thieme and F. Becker, Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler, Vol. XVII, 1924, p. 297; R. B. Beckett, Hogarth, 1949, pp.8, 73 (illus.). In spite of the date on the painting, writers prior to Beckett have dated the work as contemporary with the engraving, 1736.
  2. Acc. No. 31.58. The paneling of the Queen Anne Room was originally in a house in Staffordshire, dated between 1720 and 1730. Cf. Bulletin of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Vol. XXI, No. 19, May 7, 1932, pp. 89-96.
  3. Dimensions: height 10 5/8 inches ; width 8 3/8 inches . Each engraving bears the inscription “Invented Engraved & Published October 26: 1736 by Wm. Hogarth Pursuant to an Act of Parliament. Price One Shilling.” The two prints are state I and state III as described by Dobson, op. cit., p. 203.
  4. Cf. Austin Dobson, op. cit., p. 59. Rev. Desaguliers was “once famous for his lectures on Experimental Philosophy in what is now Cannon Row, Westminster.”
  5. From “The Autobiographical Notes,” British Museum Additional MS. 27,991,f. 10, as published in William Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty, edited by Joseph Burke, 1955, p. 209.
Referenced Work of Art
  1. William Hogarth:
    The Sleeping Congregation,
    Engraving, state III, 1736, 10 5/8 x 8 3/8 inches,
    The Mrs. Roy Pierson Memorial Fund and the Mrs. J. E. Spingarn Fund, 1959
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Source: Merrill C. Rueppel, "Hogarth's Satirical Humanism: The Sleeping Congregation," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 48, no. 3 (July-September, 1959): 3-6.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009