Prostitution Through the Eyes of William Hogarth

As Daniel Defoe's Roxana realized, during the eighteenth century, after her husband's disappearance there was not much work for a woman paying enough money to support herself. Just as the character learned, prostitution, or some variant of it, was often the only means of survival for a single woman in England during the eighteenth century. Although quite accepted and popular because of its necessity, this profession had many critics; these critics included Roxana's creator, Daniel Defoe, and the artist upon which this website is based, William Hogarth.

Hogarth opposed prostitution from the moral point of view. "He could never have celebrated sexual joy in the character of a harlot in the way John Cleland did in Fanny Hill, for Hogarth was averse both to the phony world of the whore and to sex as mere pleasure. Like Jonathan Swift, Hogarth worked and argued in a satirical tradidion that combined Protestant Christian moral principles with the critical and pessimistic views of love and lovers portrayed by such classic writers as Juvenal and Obid. In addition, he integrated into his iconography the popular bawdy satires that shaped the "mentalité " of his day. Hence, his engravings associate the sexual drive with disorder, animal lust, scatology, illegitimacy and even criminality." 4

When it came to seeds of creation of prostitution and the best way of preventing it, William Hogarth felt that "when wickedness seeks to entrap the unwary... it is particulary necessary to warn the rising generation of their impending danger, and to lay before the female world the perils to which it is exposed, by opening to their view a sight of that wretchedness that will inevitably be the consequence of their misconduct; and by a timely admonition, to prevent, if possible, the irrevocalbe misfortunes attendant on a life of life of prostitution." 5

From these views, came the collection of Harlot's Progress.

Harlot's Progress

A Harlot's Progress Plate I, The Arrival of the Harlot in London, William Hogarth (1732)

In the first scene, the heroine of the piece arrives with the assistance of her father "in search of a better fortune" and is greeted by madam. 6

A Harlot's Progress Plate II, The Harlot Deceiving her Jewish Protector, William Hogarth (1732)

In the second engraving, she is the mistress of a rich Jew. The harlot is now making her living as a prostitute, and is confident in her profession as "her exposed breast and aggressive kick indicate." 7

A Harlot's Progress Plate III, The Harlot at Her Dwelling in Drury Lane, William Hogarth (1732)

The next plate shows a scene inside her meager dwelling. Her only possessions are those of stolen goods and cures for her diseases. She is soon to be arrested. 8

A Harlot's Progress Plate IV, The Harlot Beating Hemp in Bridewell, William Hogarth (1732)

Engraving number four, shows the heroine in prison where she is forced to work like the other inmates. She is able to escape when her friend offers a leg for distraction. 9

A Harlot's Progress Plate V, The Death of the Harlot, William Hogarth (1732)

Here, the prostitute is dying of syphilis. 10

A Harlot's Progress Plate VI, The Funeral of the Harlot, William Hogarth (1732)

In the final plate, she dies with no one having any remorse for her. 11


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