William Hodges, 1744-1797: The Art of Exploration
January 29, 2005 NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT.
William Hodges. Cascade Cove, Dusky Bay, 1775. © NMM, London, MOD Art Collection.
The Yale Center for British Art is the only U.S. venue for the first retrospective of works by eighteenth-century landscape painter William Hodges. On view through April 24, 2005, William Hodges, 1744–1797: The Art of Exploration features nearly 50 oil paintings by Hodges, whose career as an artist took him to Polynesia, Antarctica, New Zealand, and the South Pacific with the renowned explorer Captain James Cook. He was also the first professional British painter to travel to India, under the patronage of the East India Company. Organized by the National Maritime Museum in London, the exhibition underscores Hodges’s central role in disseminating visual knowledge of distant lands and cultures during the greatest era of European geographical exploration.
The son of a London blacksmith, Hodges was apprenticed at age fourteen to landscape painter Richard Wilson, whom he considered to be the “greatest modern master of that art.” Hodges’s own career centered around two epic journeys: as official draftsman on Captain Cook’s second voyage to the Pacific (1772–75), and as the first professional landscape painter to visit India (1779–84).
Hodges’s paintings of Tahiti, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands were a revelation for audiences in Europe. During the three-year voyage with Cook aboard the Resolution, the crew met with extremes of weather and environment, including Cook’s unprecedented forays south into Antarctic waters. An x-ray of Hodges’s painting, Pickersgill Harbour, Dusky Bay Sound, New Zealand (April 1773) reveals a second painting hidden underneath, which is believed to be the world’s first depiction of Antarctica.
Several years after his return from the Cook expedition, Hodges arrived in India and spent three-and-a-half years traveling the country under the patronage of Warren Hastings, a key member of the East India Company and first Governor-General of India. Hodges’s Select Views of India, published in London, 1785–88, consisted of 48 fine prints after his original compositions. His interest in India was scholarly as well as artistic. He wrote A Dissertation on the Prototypes of Architecture, Hindoo [sic] , Moorish, and Gothic as well as one of the earliest published travel accounts by a professional artist, Travels in India.
Returning to England in 1784, Hodges continued to paint for another decade. Despite exhibiting at the Royal Academy and being elected a member in 1787, he died bankrupt. His final exhibition in 1794 was closed down after the Duke of York perceived French Revolutionary sympathies in his work. Subsequently, Hodges gave up painting and established a banking partnership, which failed in the uncertain climate of the war. He died in 1797, possibly by suicide.
In spite of his sad end, Hodges produced landscape paintings of startling originality that form an unprecedented record of late-eighteenth-century British expansion across the globe. This exhibition considers Hodges’s paintings in the context of the rise of ethnology, the study of Indian history, the British encounter with indigenous peoples, and the development of modern science in the Age of Reason. Many works in William Hodges, 1744–1797: The Art of Exploration have not been on display since the artist’s lifetime. This is also the first time that the Cook expedition and India works have been shown together. Hodges’s work opens up new avenues to understanding eighteenthcentury art and its importance to the expansion of empire. “With ‘empire’ at the center of debates about the teaching of history,” says exhibition curator Geoff Quilley, “Hodges’s wonderful, overlooked paintings are more important than ever.”
William Hodges, 1744–1797: The Art of Exploration has been organized by the National Maritime Museum (NMM) in London. The exhibition curator is Dr. Geoff Quilley, Curator of Maritime Art at NMM. At the Yale Center for British Art, the in-house curator is Angus Trumble, Curator of Paintings and Sculpture.
The National Maritime Museum is immensely grateful to Sir David Attenborough for his engagement in the exhibition and last summer’s conference at the NMM, The Art o Exploration. In addition, the Paul Mellon Centre, London, provided support for research on the exhibition and the conference. Special thanks also go to the public and private lenders from America and Australia, whose contributions made the exhibition possible.