William Hogarth’s engraving A Midnight Modern Conversation is perhaps the most misunderstood of the artist’s prints, and this has been the case since it was first published in 1733. It rapidly became a preferred image for reproduction on punchbowls and tankards produced in England and Holland, as well as in Meissen for the Saxon court, all of which contributed to the idea that Hogarth was celebrating drunkenness and its effects. The print was also taken to mean that Hogarth was himself a hearty drinker who relished drunken companionship and promoted it in his art. This went along with the idea, developed in the late 18th century by his biographers, that he was a true man of the people who despised his social superiors, whose pretentious behavior was the main subject of his satirical art.
But a closer look at the engraving tells a more complex story. While some of the participants seem to be having a good time, some are definitely not. The “politician” on the far right carelessly sets his sleeve on fire as he lights his pipe—with potentially horrific consequences. In the foreground, a wigless man has fallen off his chair and is spread-eagled on the ground, having smashed a bottle as he went, while an unsteady and unseeing drunk empties a bottle of wine on his head. A clergyman absorbed in his tobacco is toasted by another drunk who puts his own wig on the clergyman’s head. A man to the clergyman’s left is clearly ill and probably about to vomit, and the floor is littered with discarded food and broken pipes. The whole scene is a picture of disorder and of the consequences of excessive consumption of both alcohol and tobacco.