William Hogarth, Marriage A-la-Mode (1697–1764)
** Images and text from the National Gallery in London
Plate 1. The Marriage Settlement
Marriage A-la-Mode was the first of Hogarth’s satirical moralising series of engravings about the upper echelons of society. The paintings were models from which the engravings would be made.
The story starts in the mansion of the Earl Squander who is arranging to marry his son to the daughter of a wealthy but mean city merchant. It ends with the murder of the son and the suicide of the daughter. In the first scene the aged Earl (far right) is shown with his family tree and the crutches he needs because of his gout. The new house which he is having built is visible through the window. The merchant, who is plainly dressed, holds the marriage contract, while his daughter behind him listens to a young lawyer, Silvertongue. The Earl’s son, the Viscount, admires his face in a mirror. Two dogs, chained together in the bottom left corner, perhaps symbolise the marriage.
Hogarth’s details, especially the paintings on the walls, comment on the action. A grand portrait in the French manner on the rear wall confronts a Medusa head, denoting horror, on the side wall.
Plate 2. The Tête à Tête
In this, the second in the series of paintings, the marriage of the Viscount and the merchant’s daughter is quickly proving a disaster. The tired wife, who appears to have given a card party the previous evening, is at breakfast in the couple’s expensive house which is now in disorder. The Viscount returns exhausted from a night spent away from home, probably at a brothel: the dog sniffs a lady’s cap in his pocket. Their steward, carrying bills and a receipt, leaves the room to the left, his hand raised in despair at the disorder.
The decoration of the room again comments on the action. The picture over the mantlepiece shows Cupid among ruins. In front of it is a bust with a broken nose, symbolising impotence.
Plate 3. The Inspection
The third scene takes place in the room of a French doctor (M. de La Pillule). The Viscount is seated with his child mistress beside him, apparently having contracted venereal disease, as indicated by the black spot on his neck, Hogarth’s symbol for those taking the mercurial pills which were the only known treatment for this ailment.
He holds towards the doctor a box of pills; other boxes on the chair and in his mistress’s hand suggest he is seeking an alternative remedy. An older woman holds a clasp knife; she appears to be the young girl’s mother.
The machines to the right, identified in the inscription on the open book, are for setting a broken shoulder, and drawing corks. A skeleton embraces a model in the cupboard behind the Viscount.
Plate 4. The Toilette
After the death of the old Earl the wife is now the Countess, with a coronet above her bed and over the dressing table, where she sits. She has also become a mother, and a child’s teething coral hangs from her chair.
The lawyer Silvertongue invites her to a masquerade like the one to which he points, depicted on the screen. A group of visitors on the left listen to an opera singer, possibly a castrato, accompanied by a flautist.
An African page on the right unpacks a collection of curiosities bought at auction, including a figure of Actaeon. The paintings on the right wall show ‘Lot and his Daughters’ and ‘Jupiter and Io’ (after Correggio). On the left wall is a portrait of the lawyer and ‘Rape of Ganymede’ (after Michelangelo).
Plate 5. The Bagnio
This episode takes place in a bagnio, originally a word used to describe coffee houses which offered Turkish baths, but by 1740 it signified a place where rooms could be provided for the night with no questions asked. The Countess and the lawyer have retired there after the masquerade. The young Earl has followed them and is dying from a wound inflicted by Silvertongue, who escapes through the window, while the Countess pleads forgiveness.
The noise of the fight has awakened the master of the house who appears through the door to the right with the Watch. On the rear wall is a tapestry of the ‘Judgement of Solomon’, and a painting of a courtesan is over the door.
Plate 6. The Lady’s Death
The final scene takes place in the house of the Countess’s father. She has taken poison on learning that her lover has been hanged for the murder of the Earl, reported in the broadsheet at her feet.
Her crippled child embraces her and her father removes a ring from her finger as a suicide’s possessions were forfeit. In the centre an apothecary remonstrates with the servant whom he accuses of obtaining the poison.
Through the window to the right is a view of Old London Bridge. A dog seizes his chance to make off with the frugal meal on the table. The paintings on the wall to the left are Dutch low-life scenes, indicating the taste of the alderman.