Can You Spot A Potshot At A Scientific Theory In This Famous Painting?

Illustration for article titled Can You Spot A Potshot At A Scientific Theory In This Famous Painting?

This is part of A Rake’s Progress, a famous series of paintings. In this famous scene we see Bedlam hospital, and the artist takes a shot at a famous scientific endeavor of the 1700s. Can you guess what that endeavor was?

A Rake’s Progress has been made into a ballet and an opera. If you haven’t seen either, as is likely, you’ve probably seen one or two of its paintings as illustrations in your history book. The artist, William Hogarth, was criticizing the excess and moral decay of 18th century society. You’re unlikely to have seen the painting where young Thomas Rakewell, the protagonist of the series, comes into his inheritance, but you’ve probably seen the second and third panel, which shows Thomas squandering his fortune on fine clothes and wild parties in brothels.

You’re most likely, though, to have seen the final painting. This painting, shown above, shows the squalor and chaos of Bedlam Asylum, where Thomas sits miserably on the ground after losing his mind to syphilis and his fortune to gambling. Our eyes are drawn by both Thomas, sitting closest to us, and the two female visitors who gawk at the inmates.


But if you look at the man crouching behind the door just to the right of Thomas, you see an unexpected slam at a scientific question of the day. While at sea, sailors could figure out their latitude easily, just but looking up. However, they couldn’t figure out longitude.

The British government offered prizes for ways to figure out longitude while at sea, and a host of people set out making calculations as a way of gaining their fortune. Others thought it could never be done, and said so. William Hogarth appears to be one of those others. If you look carefully you can see that the man has sketched a globe, a sun, a moon, and a boat. Trying to figure out this impossible problem, Hogarth implies, will drive you crazy, as sure as orgies and gambling will.

Image: McCormick Library, Northwestern University

[Source: The British Museum, Folger Shakespeare Library]


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So Hogarth was pretty dumb basically?