Hogarth certainly painted this sketch from life, and although he may never have known the girl’s name, this is defiynitely a portrait of an individual. For at least a century before and after Hogarth painted The Shrimp Girl, most of the travelling sellers of shellfish in London were women, usually the daughters or wives of fishmongers in Billingsgate Fish Market.
Hogarth sketched a half-pint measure in the basket balanced on his shrimp girl’s head. A few darker shells suggest that she also sells mussels, and perhaps cockles, as well as shrimps. She wears a dark sou'wester, a hat traditionally worn by fisherman, and a cloak, probably of oilskin, but nothing can dim the sense of life and character she radiates.
The Shrimp Girl appears unique among Hogarth’s single-figure oil sketches in being painted from life, spontaneously and for its own sake. The speed with which it was painted adds to its sense of truth and liveliness.
For at least a century before and after Hogarth painted The Shrimp Girl, most of the travelling sellers of shellfish in London were women, usually the daughters or wives of fishmongers in the market. The women would set out from Billingsgate Fish Market dressed in oilskin cloaks and sou‘westers, a hat traditionally worn by fisherman, with the shellfish in a basket balanced on their heads. They would go through the London streets calling out which shellfish they had for sale and how much they cost per half-pint.
Hogarth sketched a half-pint measure in his shrimp girl’s basket. A few darker shells suggest that she also sells mussels, and perhaps cockles, as well as shrimps. She wears a dark hat and cloak, probably of oilskin, but nothing can dim the sense of life and character she radiates. Her lips are spread in a smile – or perhaps she’s talking – and we can see her teeth, which is unusual in portraits of the time and adds to the image’s feeling of truth and immediacy. After Hogarth’s death, when some critics tried to lessen his reputation, Mrs Hogarth reputedly liked to show visitors this picture and comment: ’They say he could not paint flesh and blood. There’s flesh and blood for you: – them!‘
Although Hogarth may never have known the girl’s name, this painting is certainly a portrait. Compared with the pictures of pretty street sellers which became popular some 50 years later, such as John Hoppner’s Girl with Sallad (Colby College Art Museum, Waterville, Maine, USA), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1782, and Francis Wheatley’s Itinerant Trades of London, engraved 1793–5, Hogarth’s image is direct and unpatronising. He recognises that the ’Shrimp Girl‘ is an individual in her own right, and does not presume to tidy her up.
We do not know of any similar single-figure oil sketches by Hogarth. The Shrimp Girl appears unique in being painted from life, spontaneously and for its own sake. It is thinly painted, without using many layers of paint to build up the forms, and the ground is still visible in many places. Particularly in the girl’s dress and cloak, Hogarth’s brushstrokes are broad, rough and unblended, in places looking almost as though he’s scrubbed the canvas with his brush. The speed with which the picture was painted adds to its feeling of liveliness.
The Shrimp Girl remained in Hogarth’s studio during the last 20 years or so of his life. He did not add a single brushstroke to her image, as he believed that ’if a thing is good, the action and the passion may be more truly and distinctly conveyed by a coarse bold stroke than the most delicate finishing'.
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