hogarths marriage a la mode series





Pictorial Narratives:
Hogarth’s Marriage ŕ la Mode

One of Hogarth’s bitterest satires, Marriage ŕ la Mode, showed the disastrous results of a marriage of convenience concluded between the son of a poverty-stricken nobleman and the daughter of an aspiring merchant (Jarrett 88). Yet this background information is not necessary to appreciate each painting independently. From the first painting, in which the ambitious fathers of the couple exchange money and titles, to the final two prints that show the husband and wife’s melodramatic deaths, each of the six prints tells both a episode in the story of this doomed arranged marriage and a story in and of itself. The first two Marriage ŕ la Mode prints, The Marriage Settlement and Shortly After the Marriage, both contain numerous works of art, architecture, period dress and other carefully placed props that allow each work to tell a story without being dependent on the context of the series.
Because of its immense detail, The Marriage Contract is perhaps one of the easiest prints to appreciate. Even without any prior knowledge of this work, an inexperienced art critic can still ascertain that the scene takes place in an aristocratic home. Copies of paintings after the old masters hang in gilt frames, the ceiling is painted and the walls hung with green damask. Two men sit at a table in some sort of business transaction, as evidenced by the presence of three lawyers, numerous documents and money. The gentleman on the right’s portrait hangs on the wall above the table, indicating that the deal is being brokered in his home. He is correspondingly dressed in fine clothes, whereas the other gentleman is more modestly attired. The skill with which Hogarth has represented the swelling aristocratic pride of the Earl and the lower-bred, commercial demeanor of the Sheriff was regarded by eighteenth-century critics, best acquainted with the social manners of their age, as masterly (Webster 103).
A document that reads “Marriage Settlement of the Rt. Honble Lord Viscount Squanderfield” rests in the hand of the non-artistocratic gentleman, his careful perusal of the document indicating that he is the bride’s father. In turn, he has handed over a sum of money to the Viscount’s father (who the inexperienced viewer can assume holds the title earl). In turn, the Earl points to his contribution to the marriage settlement: a family tree that traces his lineage back to William the Conqueror (the tree reading “William, Duke of Normandye”). The Earl’s finger rests on the main trunk of the tree, of which he is the representative. Both trunk and branches are ornamented with coroneted names, but on a detached branch appears a mésalliance between a baron and a commoner (Webster 104). The husband-to-be sits nearby, with a clearly visible black patch on his neck to cover the mark of syphilis, which suggest both that he frequents brothels and that the tendency to fornicate with commoners runs in the family.
A man resembling a lawyer stands by the window holding a packet of papers that read “A Plan of the New Building of the Right Hon…” and looks outside to the magnificent Palladian-style building-in-progress. Construction has come to a halt, undoubtedly due to lack of funds, hence the necessity for the Earl to marry his son to a wealthy (if untitled) man’s daughter. The man standing with the bride-to-be wears a lawyer’s black gown and white wig. His employment shows the weight and importance of the two parties to the marriage (Webster 104). His presence and that of the other two men (most likely lawyers as well) lends an air of officiality to the scene and the ensuing misery that is to come. The unhappy bride-to-be sulks in a chair, threading her handkerchief through her new wedding ring while the lawyer pays more attention to her than her future husband does. The viscount is seating next to his fiancée on a small sofa but has turned away from her to look at his own reflection in the mirror. This will clearly not be a happy marriage.
Overall, Hogarth’s series engaged with mid-eighteenth century debates and anxieties relating to modern forms of wedlock (Hallett 178). Consequently, the Earl’s foot is clearly bandaged, indicating he