———————— Let the picture rust,
Perhaps Time’s price-enhancing dust —
As statues moulder into earth,
When I’m no more, may mark its worth;
And future connoisseurs may rise,
Honest as ours, and full as wise,
To puff the piece, and painter too,
And make me then what Guido’s now.
A competition with either Guido, or Furino, would to any modern painter be an enterprise of danger: to Hogarth it was more peculiarly so, from the public justly conceiving that the representation of elevated distress was not his forte, and his being surrounded by an host of foes, who either dreaded satire, or envied genius. The connoisseurs, considering the challenge as too insolent to be forgiven, before his picture appeared, determined to decry it. The painters rejoiced in his attempting what was likely to end in disgrace; and to satisfy those who had formed their ideas of Sigismonda upon the inspired page of Dryden, was no easy task.
The bard has consecrated the character, and his heroine glitters with a brightness that cannot be transferred to the canvass. Mr. Walpole’s description, though equally radiant, is too various, for the utmost powers of the pencil.
Hogarth’s Sigismonda, as this gentleman poetically expresses it, “has none of the sober grief, no dignity of suppressed anguish, no involuntary tear, no settled meditation on the fate she meant to meet, no amorous warmth turned holy by despair; in short, all is wanting that should have been there, all is there that such a story would have banished from a mind capable of conceiving such complicated woe; woe so sternly felt, and yet so tenderly.” This glowing picture presents to the mind a being whose contending passions may be felt, but were not delineated even by Corregio. Had his tints been aided by the grace and greatness of Raphael, they must have failed.
The author of the Mysterious Mother sought for sublimity, where the artist strictly copied nature, which was invariably his archetype, but which the painter, who soars into fancy’s fairy regions, must in a degree desert. Considered with this reference, though the picture has faults, Mr. Walpole’s satire is surely too severe. It is built upon a comparison with works painted in a language of which Hogarth knew not the idiom, — trying him before a tribunal, whose authority he did not acknowledge, and from the picture having been in many respects altered after the critic saw it, some of the remarks become unfair. To the frequency of these alterations we may attribute many of the errors: the man who has not confidence in his own knowledge of the leading principles on which his work ought to be built, will not render it perfect by following the advice of his friends. Though Messrs. Wilkes and Churchill dragged his heroine to the altar of politics, and mangled her with a barbarity that can hardly be paralleled, except in the history of her husband — the artist retained his partiality; which seems to have increased in exact proportion to their abuse. The picture being thus contemplated through the medium of party prejudice, we cannot wonder that all its imperfections were exaggerated. The painted harlot of Babylon had not more opprobrious epithets from the first race of reformers than the painted Sigismonda of Hogarth from the last race of patriots.
When a favourite child is chastised by his preceptor, a partial mother redoubles her caresses. Hogarth, estimating this picture by the labour he had bestowed upon it, was certain that the public were prejudiced, and requested, if his wife survived him, she would not sell it for less than five hundred pounds. Mrs. Hogarth acted in conformity to his wishes, but after her death the painting was purchased by Messrs. Boydell, and exhibited in the Shakspeare Gallery. The colouring, though not brilliant, is harmonious and natural: the attitude, drawing, etc. may be generally conceived by the print. I am much inclined to think, that if some of those who have been most severe in their censures, had consulted their own feelings, instead of depending upon connoisseurs, poor Sigismonda would have been in higher estimation. It has been said that the first sketch was made from Mrs. Hogarth, at the time she was weeping over the corse of her mother.
Hogarth once intended to have appealed from the critics’ fiat to the world’s opinion, and employed Mr. Basire to make an engraving, which was begun, but set aside for some other work, and never completed.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:51