“Among the Whores and Thieves”: William Hogarth and The Beggar’s Opera

Saturday, February 1, 1997
Sunday, April 6, 1997

John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera was the theatrical sensation of 1728. Its underworld of prostitutes and thieves burlesqued the heroic visions of history and mythology offered by the reigning form of the Italian opera, as its simple songs offered a popular alternative to the Italian opera’s florid arias and recitatives. Between 1728 and 1731, William Hogarth painted at least five versions of the scene from The Beggar’s Opera in which the imprisoned highwayman, Macheath, stands between his two wives while they appeal to their fathers to save him from execution. This exhibition brought together two of those versions (with a third that has long been attributed to Hogarth) and surrounded them with an array of prints, books, and paintings to sketch in the social, political, theatrical, and musical significance of this eighteenth-century mingling of low life and high art. The exhibition, which grew out of a graduate seminar at Yale by the noted scholar David Bindman of the Department of the History of Art, University College, London, was accompanied by an illustrated catalogue with an introduction by Bindman and eight essays by the seminar participants.

William Hogarth, The Beggar’s Opera (detail), 1729, oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection