Cats in the Enlightenment (Part 13 – Cats in Art – William Hogarth)

The English painter, William Hogarth, (1697-1794), who was highly critical of the lax social mores of the time, set out to draw and paint about issues which he felt strongly, using the cat symbolically in many of his works.  A versatile artist, Hogarth was both a painter and engraver.  Some of his most famous engravings are of a prostitute named Moll Hackabout. Based loosely on the life of a real prostitute, Kate Hackabout, the series of six engravings tells her life story.  When she first arrives in London in hopes of getting a job as a seamstress, she is instead set upon by members of the grimy underside of society and is unsuspectingly duped into becoming the mistress of a wealthy businessman.  By Plate 3 in the series, Moll has gone from being a mistress to a common prostitute with a Madame to look after her.  The small cat in the foreground with its bottom raised in a rather suggestive way serves as only one of many symbols of her imminent downfall and licentiousness.

The Harlot's Progress 1732, William Hogarth, cats in art

The Harlot’s Progress
William Hogarth

In the end, William Hogarth creates a very strong moral condemnation of the depravity that was rampant in London.   In another group of engravings entitled, The Four Stages of Cruelty, Hogarth depicts his disgust for animal cruelty and the high crime rate amongst the poor of London.  The pictures, issued on affordable paper, were to be distributed to the lower classes as educational material.  In the engraving, First Stage of Cruelty (1751), we meet Tom Nero, an infamous torturer of animals, who we see doing unspeakable things to a dog.  Not only does the dog suffer but several other animals as well, including two fighting cats who are hanged by their back legs from a tall poll just within reach of each other.  In the bottom left corner, a dog is attacking a cat, and in the background of the picture, a cat tied to two bladders to weigh it down is being thrown from a high window.  

The First Stage of Cruelty 1751 Engraving, William Hogarth

The First Stage of Cruelty
William Hogarth


When not producing these vivid moralistic works, Hogarth was painting portraits of the social eliteThe Graham Children (1742) displays several symbols of mortality, and is actually a tribute to the baby in the picture who had actually died before the picture was completed.  The cat looks longingly at the bird wishing for its death, the scythe on the clock, and the hour glass all allude to the finiteness of life.   

The Graham Children 1742 William Hogarth National Gallery, London

The Graham Children
William Hogarth
National Gallery, London


The father of the Graham children was the apothecary to the King.


Want to know more about the cat in literature, art and history? Then Revered and Reviled is the book for  you. Now available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats. 


Revered and Reviled: A Complete History of the Domestic Cat, cat history, cats




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