Hogarth represents an important watershed in British art, marking the end of the century-long predominance of Dutch and Flemish painters in England and the beginning of a native school. Although his style was influenced by French rococo artists, Hogarth was a realist and social critic whose subjects came from the London middle classes as he observed them in the streets, in coffee houses, or at the theater.
This vivid scene is a small version of Hogarth's earliest dated painting, now in the Tate Gallery, London. The subject was based on John Gay's popular and long-playing ballad-opera. With its open buffooning of Italian grand opera and its more subtle attacks on the British ruling class and Walpole government, the story was a ready medium for Hogarth's incisive pictorial satire.
The setting (act 3, scene II) is in Newgate prison where Macheath, a highwayman and anti-hero of sorts, has been brought after his arrest for robbery. He stands in the middle of the stage, shackled, legs astride, a dominant figure in brilliant red. To the left is Lucy, Macheath's lover, the daughter of the jailer Lockit. To the right is Macheath's wife, Polly, who kneels by her father, Peachum, the fence who betrayed Macheath and in doing so brought about the present crisis. Both wife and lover plead for Macheath's life to be spared.
More information on this painting can be found in the Gallery publication British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries, which is available as a free PDF https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/publications/pdfs/british-paintings-16th-19th-centuries.pdf
Edward Cheney. (Possibly--although, if so, inaccurately described as a "Garden Scene with many figures, in colours"--sale, Sotheby's, 29 April 1885 et seq., 3rd day, no. 332); bought by (P. & D. Colnaghi & Co., London). Francis Capel Cure [1854-1933], Badger Hall, Essex, by 1905; by descent to his nephew, Nigel Capel Cure [b.1908], Blake Hall, Ongar, Essex, by 1965. (John Baskett, Ltd., London); purchased June 1975 by Paul Mellon, Upperville, Virginia; gift 1983 to NGA.
- Works by the Old Masters, and by Deceased Masters of the British School. Winter Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1912, no. 150.
- Hogarth, Tate Gallery, London, 1971-1972, no. 46, repro.
- Gifts to the Nation: Selected Acquisitions from the Collections of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1986, unnumbered checklist, repro. (detail)
- "Among the Whores and Thieves": William Hogarth and 'The Beggar's Opera', Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 1997, no. 10, fig. 4.
- Lewis, Wilmarth Sheldon, and Philip Hofer. "The Beggar's Opera" by Hogarth and Blake. Cambridge, Massachusetts, New Haven, and London, 1965: no. 5, pl. 5.
- Paulson, Ronald. Hogarth: His Life, Art, and Times. 2 vols. New Haven and London, 1971: 185, pl. 63.
- Webster, Mary. Hogarth. London, 1978: no. 6, repro., 13-14.
- Bindman, David. Hogarth. London, 1981: 32-36.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 352, no. 491, color repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 204, repro.
- Einberg, Elizabeth and Judy Egerton. The Age of Hogarth. London (Tate Gallery Collections, vol. 2), 1988: 76, fig. 29.
- Hayes, John. British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 122-128, color repro. 125.
- National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 142, repro.
The fine canvas is tightly plain woven; it has been lined, but the original tacking margins survive intact. The ground is warm gray and of moderate thickness. There is a thinly applied yellowish green imprimatura. The painting is executed in thin, rich, opaque layers that have an enamellike quality; the figures in the background are sketchily painted. There are pentimenti in the curtain: x-radiographs reveal that Hogarth originally painted upper center a satyr's head set between swags of drapery - which, as in the Yale version of this subject, would probably have borne the motto of Lincoln's Inn Fields Theater: VELUTI IN SPECULUM UTILE DULCI- suspended on either side of what was presumably, although partially beneath the satyr's head, the royal coat of arms. The highlights of the curtain are executed with what appears to be gold foil toned with glazes. The edging of Macheath's pink coat was originally gilded. The paint surface is slightly abraded and has been slightly flattened during lining. The painting is otherwise in good condition. There are scattered retouches applied to abraded surfaces and some of the cracks. The thin natural resin varnish has not discolored.