National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION
image of A Scene from The Beggar's Opera William Hogarth (artist)
English, 1697 - 1764
A Scene from The Beggar's Opera, 1728/1729
oil on canvas
overall: 51.1 x 61.2 cm (20 1/8 x 24 1/8 in.) framed: 79.2 x 88.6 x 6.9 cm (31 3/16 x 34 7/8 x 2 11/16 in.)
Paul Mellon Collection
1983.1.42
Not on View
From the Tour: British and American History Paintings of the 1700s
Object 3 of 8

At its London premiere on 29 January 1728, The Beggar’s Opera triumphed as an immediate success. In his comic operetta, John Gay parodied both government corruption and the vogue for Italian opera. The arias were popular ballads with new lyrics by Gay, and the characters were pickpockets and prostitutes. William Hogarth, as Gay’s friend, painted six canvases of the final scene, which is set in Newgate Prison.

On trial for robbery, Captain Macheath stands in shackles, while two of his lovers plead for his life. Lucy, his mistress, kneels before her father, Lockit the jailer, who wears keys on his belt. Macheath’s wife, Polly, also implores her father, Peachum, a criminal mastermind and fence, to intervene on Macheath’s behalf. The other figures are not actors but theater patrons who, according to custom, were privileged to sit on stage. Adding to the fun, these spectators include caricatures of prominent aristocrats.

Before becoming a painter, William Hogarth earned fame with sets of humorous prints—his “modern moral subjects”—that satirized contemporary life. In 1753, Hogarth published the earliest major book of art theory in English. His Analysis of Beauty extolled lively, sinuous lines, such as the complex curves of the figures’ poses and the stage curtain in this theatrical tableau.

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