The scene is a London park in the mid-18th century. Bewigged figures make formal conversation in the foreground. In the distance, a company of soldiers is drilling in perfect formation. A line of handsome, classical buildings stretches across the backdrop. Order prevails. This is the capital of a prosperous country with big aspirations: the city as depicted by Canaletto, the great Venetian artist, during a decade-long stay in England.
And now for something completely different: on a London side street within easy strolling distance of the park, a drunken and bare-breasted woman allows her baby to tumble from her arms. Just behind, a brawl is developing outside the distillery; the ramshackle houses are close to collapse. Sure, it's satire, but the detail screams of authentic knockabout city life. This is London as portrayed by William Hogarth, native British painter, printmaker, polemicist, patriot and occasional moralist.
Two artists; two utterly different views of a city and a century. Canaletto and Hogarth were exact contemporaries, both born in 1697, and spent a few years as neighbors in the artists' quarter of Soho. Though both mastered their own particular genres, they developed complementary visions of their time, which are rarely seen together. Now, in London, they can be. The first major exhibition of Hogarth's works in more than 30 years--already displayed to huge acclaim at the Louvre--opened last week at Tate Britain (to April 29), while "Canaletto in England" is showing at the Dulwich Picture Gallery (to April 15). For art lovers, it is an irresistible duel: the champion of robust British common sense going head-to-head with the onetime theatrical scene painter and master of Italian artifice.
Canaletto had sound commercial reasons for developing his style. His clients were mostly rich English aristocrats, back from their Grand Tour of Europe. Infused with notions of classicism, they wanted idealized pictures of their home country, and Canaletto was happy to oblige. Don't look for storm clouds or rowdy boatmen in his grand depictions of the Thames; his pictures of the imposing new bridge under construction at Westminster suggest the inexorable march of progress, the triumph of form and symmetry. The composition is perfect, the draftsmanship is impossible to fault, but this is a foreigner's whitewashed view of a city with no trace of smog or grime. And if reality didn't quite conform to the ideal? Canaletto often skews perspectives or shifts entire buildings to achieve his effects.
That's not the Hogarth manner. Reality is all. As a satirist, his targets were pretension and the hypocrisy beneath the polished and powdered surface of city life. Raised in poverty in London, Hogarth knew all about the city's seamier side. The great series of engravings that made his fortune--think of "The Rake's Progress" or "Marriage a la Mode"--tells stories of whoring, drink, cheating and gambling. His priests are hypocrites who leer at pretty young women in church, his magistrates take bribes, his lawyers seduce their attractive clients. His details--the urinating dog, the black spots on the faces that suggest syphilis--combine to present a bleak view of mankind.
But Hogarth is capable of much more than polemics. As much as Canaletto, he was a creature of his times. Interested in ideas, he wrote "An Analysis of Beauty," a treatise on art. Above all, he was capable of huge sympathy for his subjects, capturing character with a lightness of touch lost in the grand manner of some later 18th-century portrait artists. The great portrait of the philanthropic Captain Coram or the six grouped heads of his family servants exude warmth and humanity. For the world as it should be, study Canaletto; for the world that we know--good and bad--it has to be Hogarth.