No Laughing Matter: William Hogarth’s “Humours of an Election”
William Hogarth (London, 1697 – 1764), Chairing the Members, 1758. wood engraving. Collection of the Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson. Gift of M.B. White, 1979.060.
William Hogarth (London, 1697 – 1764), The Polling, 1758. wood engraving. Collection of the Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson. Gift of M.B. White, 1979.061.
William Hogarth (London, 1697 – 1764), Canvassing for Votes, 1757. wood engraving. Collection of the Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson. Gift of M.B. White, 1979.062.
On view November 6, 2018 through February 3, 2019
Artists often find inspiration in the politics of their own eras. While written and visual satire have origins in ancient Egypt and Greece, William Hogarth’s work is widely considered a forerunner to the modern political cartoon. Probing contemporary life in 18th-century England, Hogarth critically examined societal dysfunction and the abuses of power using a sharp, boisterous style. His widely distributed engravings had relatable themes made him immensely popular and often plagiarized.
In Humours of an Election (originally created as oil paintings in 1755), William Hogarth reflects upon the Oxfordshire Parliamentary election of 1754. Though the details related to the Whig and Tory parties would hardly ruffle any political feathers in 21st-century America, the themes Hogarth tackles are timeless. This election was a notoriously corrupt and expensive process that ended with contested results and calls for reform. Hogarth maximizes the drama and collapses the timeline by filling each scene with multiple groupings of figures engaged in various activities. Each scene reveals the negligence of the proceedings, from a farmer taking bribes from both political parties at once to a deceased man being carried in to cast his vote, absurd scenarios that hint at more serious issues of corruption and voter fraud and intimidation. Though satire has been criticized for failing to inspire true political change, artists – then and now – have used their creative platforms to shed light on injustices in systems of power.