Hograth, William: Night (from 'Four Times of Day', 1736)

The Independent's Great Art series


Also in this article:



About the artist

How many pictures can you find in a picture? The answer is usually: more than one. If the picture is any good, it will consist of several different kinds of picture, combined. Some you may prefer to others. Henri Matisse said: "When I see the Giotto frescoes at Padua, I do not trouble to recognise which scene from the life of Christ I have before me. I perceive instantly the sentiment that radiates from it, and which is instinct in the composition in every line and colour. The title will only serve to confirm my impression."

Like many 20th-century painters, Matisse believed that line and colour were far more important than story-telling. Even in an Old Master like Giotto, they were the emotional heart. The stories from the life of Christ were there but only as a pretext, something to hang the composition on. You didn't need to focus on them.

Now you may wonder at Matisse's knack for turning a blind eye. Did he really see only abstract pictures? Did he really not notice the subjects before him, until he read the titles? But he's only doing what other viewers say they do, when they look at a picture and talk about its different aspects or levels the narrative, the symbolism, the draftsmanship, the composition, the colour scheme, the light and dark, the brushwork etc.

Of course, it may be hard to literally separate out these aspects into different pictures. You couldn't do a version of a Giotto fresco that just had the line and colour, but didn't have the story. Put down the line and colour, and surely the story comes too (and vice versa). Or perhaps you could, if you had the nerve. After all, some artists do it for themselves.

The revelation of this year's Hogarth show at Tate Britain was the sequence of paintings called The Four Times of Day. These four scenes of London street life are rarely seen together. Two of them (Morning and Night) are in Warwickshire. The other two (Noon and Evening) are in Lincolnshire. Even more rare, they reveal a Hogarth who's not just a supremely inventive image-maker. He's a real painter.

The finest is Night. Here, darkness merges and reconfigures the world. Charing Cross appears against a cloudy, full-mooned sky, as a formation of silhouettes. The bunch-of-grapes emblem echoes the bright, same-sized moon, and hangs directly above the dark statue. The top of the scene is a perfect nocturne, a pattern of forms, where everything depends on fine-tuned gradations of grey and grey-brown.

In the bottom of the scene, small fires break out a bonfire, a lamp, a candle-lit window, each revealing a glimpse of human business. The foreground is occupied by shadowy figures and actions. A wagon wheel lies at a strange angle. There's a feeling of the darkness stirring. The city at night is a forest of signs, a deep wood filled with its nocturnal creatures. That's what Hogarth can do when he's being a painter.

But most Hogarth pictures exist in two versions as a painting and a print. Night is no exception. The print is (as usual) a mirror image of the painting. It is in black-and-white, in engraved lines. And here the scene is dramatically changed: whatever was obscure in the painting is made distinct; whatever was atmospheric is dispelled.

The print isn't interested in overall visual effect, but in readable detail. You see a coach crash, with people screaming and shots being fired. You see the images on the inn-signs. You see numerous clues, indicating the various social types involved. In other words, the print gives you all the I-spy stuff that Hogarth's commentators love to go on about.

A study in darkness is transformed into a scene of turbulent business and violence, full of passions and disasters, anecdotes, social observation and symbolism. In the painting, those telling details are submerged in shade. In the print it doesn't seem to be night at all, more like a graphic equivalent of cinema's "day-for-night", an artificial darkness in which everything remains clearly visible.

Actually, all the details that are in the print are also dimly present in the painting, and were probably a bit more visible when it was first painted. In his print version, Hogarth is only bringing out the latent story-telling aspect, at the expense of everything else.

In the process, he reveals the fact that Night is a divided image, consisting in effect of two superimposed pictures a mysterious nocturne and a midnight farce whose priorities are not just different but incompatible. A single picture couldn't do both. Yet it's only an extreme case of something quite normal. Almost any picture worth looking at has similar schizoid tendencies.

The artist

William Hogarth (1697-1764) is often named as the father of British art. He is much more than the bluff, plain-speaking Englishman of his own self-image. He's a big, complicated artist. He's a severe moralist. He's surreal. He has a sharp eye for high art and popular culture. He's interested in character. He makes jokes, both daft and savage. He's a panoramic observer of society. He packs his images with every kind of visual sign and symbol. Next to Hogarth, all other picture-making looks a bit specialised. And just occasionally he can paint.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions