A Rake’s Progress by William Hogarth: A Story of a Man’s Decline

William Hogarth’s series A Rake’s Progress shows how a man goes from inheriting a fortune to dying in a mental asylum.

Mar 4, 2023By Stefanie Graf, MA in progress, BA in Art History

rakes progress by william hogarth


William Hogarth is known for his satirical and moral works such as A Rake’s Progress. The artist’s series of eight paintings called A Rake’s Progress tells the story of Tom Rakewell, a merchant’s son, who wastes all his money on activities like gambling and who suffers the consequences of his actions. Due to his decisions, Rakewell ultimately ends up in prison and in a psychiatric hospital. Hogarth created the series in 1734, however the paintings were published as engravings a year later.


A Rake’s Progress: William Hogarth and the Modern Moral Subject

william hogarth painter and his pug
The Painter and his Pug by William Hogarth, 1745, via Tate, London


William Hogarth was born in London in 1697. He started drawing when he was a child. When he was 15 years old, he became a silversmith’s apprentice, where he learned to engrave silver and gold works. Many of the skills he needed as an artist were self-taught. Hogarth was highly sociable and humorous. He spent his time observing people and going to see different theater shows and fairs. He also enjoyed going to coffeehouses that were frequented by intellectuals, musicians, writers, and actors.


Hogarth started to include aspects of contemporary life and humorous scenes in his work. Series’ like A Rake’s Progress and A Harlot’s Progress showed stories that could happen in real life which provided moral lessons in values like diligence and integrity. The works of Hogarth’s moral and satirical series which criticize contemporary manners and behavior are often called modern moral subjects. The engravings of these works were produced cheaply in order to be distributed to a wider audience. These engravings became an enormous success and secured Hogarth’s financial freedom. To prevent the circulation of pirated versions of his works, Hogarth advocated for a law protecting the copyright of engravers. He even withheld A Rake’s Progress until the Engravers’ Copyright Act, also called Hogarth’s Act, was passed in 1735.


I – The Heir

william hogarth rake_s progress heir
A Rake’s Progress I: The Heir by William Hogarth, 1734, via Sir John Soane’s Museum, London


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The Heir is the first part of William Hogarth’s series A Rake’s Progress. It shows Tom Rakewell being measured for a new suit by a tailor. He just inherited his stingy father’s money. The lawyer behind him is supposed to make an inventory of the estate. Instead of counting the gold coins in the bag, he reaches into the bag to take some out for himself. Since Rakewell is looking at the two women on the left, the lawyer stays undetected.


The young crying woman we see is Rakewell’s former lover, Sarah Young, who he promised to marry but is now refusing to, instead offering her some gold coins. The ring she is holding in her hand, her visible pregnancy, and the love letters her angry mother brought are all a testament to their love and Rakewell’s broken promises. The diary in the bottom right of the picture provides insight into the superficial relationship between Tom Rakewell and his father who cared more about sending his son to Oxford than his moral character.


II – The Levée

william hogarth rake’s progress levee
A Rake’s Progress II: The Levée by William Hogarth, 1734, via Sir John Soane’s Museum, London


The second scene from A Rake’s Progress is set around seven years after the first one. It shows Rakewell at a levée, a ceremony held in the morning during which a monarch would eat breakfast and get dressed. It also served as an opportunity for ordinary people to talk to the monarch. Rakewell was one of the newly rich men who also started having a levée in the morning. We see him wearing a pink morning coat, red shoes, and a white house cap since he has not yet put his wig on.


The people around him include a musician, a fencing teacher, a music teacher, a dancing teacher, a landscape gardener, his jockey with a silver trophy, and a man named Captain Hackum who offers his services as a bodyguard. The painting hanging behind the main character shows a depiction of the Judgement of Paris, a story coming from Greek mythology. The story talks about Paris having to choose who of the three goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite is the most beautiful. Aphrodite promises him Helen of Sparta, the most beautiful woman in the world, so Paris chooses her. This decision ultimately caused the Trojan War, so the Judgement of Paris leads to disaster and Hogarth’s reference serves as a prophecy of Rakewell’s fate.


III – The Orgy

william hogarth rake_s progress orgy
A Rake’s Progress III: The Orgy by William Hogarth, 1734, via Sir John Soane’s Museum, London


The orgy taking place in the painting with the same name is occurring in a brothel called Rose Tavern. The disheveled Tom Rakewell is sitting on the right, visibly drunk. One of the sex workers is embracing him but only in order to steal his watch which she hands over to another woman behind his back. The watch shows that it is 3 in the morning, indicating that it has been a long and eventful night. A box of mercury pills is lying on the ground. It was used to treat syphilis and belongs to Tom Rakewell. This is supposed to illustrate his decline in moral standards. Many of the sex workers had syphilis themselves, which Hogarth depicted using the black spots on their faces.


Two of the sex workers sitting at the table are fighting. One of them is holding a knife, probably in order to threaten the other one who is spitting wine on her face. The woman undressing next to Tom Rakewell is a dancer who is getting ready for her show. A man we see entering the room is carrying a large silver tray. The tray was part of a show the Rose Tavern was infamous for. It was placed on the table under the performing dancer so that the audience could see her genitals.


IV – The Arrest

william hogarth rake_s progress arrest
A Rake’s Progress IV: The Arrest by William Hogarth, 1734, via Sir John Soane’s Museum, London


In the fourth image of A Rake’s Progress, Tom Rakewell is on his way to the royal court in an attempt to climb the social ladder. Rakewell is depicted under a sign reading Hudson and Sadler which indicates that he spent all of his father’s money on horse racing and gambling. We now see him in debt while one of his creditors catches him. Two constables or bailiffs try to arrest Rakewell. Surprised by this sudden arrest, Rakewell drops his cane, but a child picks it up, presumably to keep it for himself. His former lover, Sarah Young, comes to his rescue. She offers her purse and her savings to save Rakewell from having to go to court. Even though she does not make a lot of money as a hat maker, as her box of ribbons indicates, she does everything she can for her former lover.


V – The Marriage

william hogarth rake_s progress marriage
A Rake’s Progress V: The Marriage by William Hogarth, 1734, via Sir John Soane’s Museums, London


To regain the status and riches of a wealthy man, Tom Rakewell marries an affluent elderly woman. During that time, a husband became the owner of everything his wife owned after they got married. It is obvious that Tom Rakewell marries her only to get access to her fortune as he is already eyeing his bride’s younger and attractive maid. The church in which the marriage took place actually existed when Hogarth was alive. Rakewell’s devoted former lover, Sarah Young, is also included in the work. She is standing in the background and holding their child in her arms. Next to Sarah we see her mother trying to get into the church in order to stop the marriage.


VI – The Gaming House

william hogarth rake_s progress gaming house
A Rake’s Progress VI: The Gaming House by William Hogarth, 1734, via Sir John Soane’s Museum, London


The sixth part of A Rake’s Progress takes place in a gambling house where Rakewell managed to waste his second fortune. In a moment of despair and rage, he raises his fist in the air on one knee. His wig drops to the floor, exposing his shaved head. Next to him we see his purse which is now completely empty. His frantic facial expression is one of the first signs of his deteriorating mental health.


Hogarth criticized gambling, which was particularly popular during that time. People of all classes gathered in this room. They are shown as distracted by their obsession with gambling therefore they do not even realize that a fire broke out in the background. Only a night watchman with a lantern and two other men seem to notice this.


VII – The Prison

william hogarth rake_s progress prison
A Rake’s Progress VII: The Prison by William Hogarth, 1734, via Sir John Soane’s Museum, London


When Tom Rakewell is unable to pay his debts in the seventh part of A Rake’s Progress, he ends up in prison. To survive, the debtors had to pay for things like food or firewood in addition to paying off their debts. One person demands money from Rakewell for the beer that he brought him. To get himself out of this situation, Rakewell wrote a play he intended to sell, but on the table next to him we see a rejection letter.


On the opposite side of the room we see Sarah Young. This time she faints after seeing how dreadful her former lover’s life had become. One woman tries to help her regain consciousness by using smelling salts, while her mother slaps her arm. We even see her corset loosened. Their child is pulling on her skirt, presumably in order to revive her as well.


VIII – The Madhouse: The last part of A Rake’s Progress

william hogarth rake_s progress madhouse
A Rake’s Progress VIII: The Madhouse by William Hogarth, 1734, via Sir John Soane’s Museum, London


The eighth and last part of A Rake’s Progress shows how Tom Rakewell spends his last days in a mental hospital. The scene takes place in the Royal Bethlem Hospital, which is an actual psychiatric hospital in London. Crying next to Tom we see Sarah who never leaves his side during all those years. We can see that she brought him soup, but he is still not paying attention to her. The women in fancy dresses in the background represent curious visitors who pay money to see the patients. This was a common practice at the time. Everyone could come and see the insane.

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By Stefanie GrafMA in progress, BA in Art HistoryStefanie is completing her bachelor’s degree in art history at the University of Vienna, Austria. She will commence her master’s degree next semester. She has a passion for modern and contemporary art, architecture, and art theory. Interested in researching and reading about the impact art has on the viewer and on society, Stefanie believes that art can change, question and shape the way we think and live.