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