This paper will refer to Hogarth’s series of six paintings ‘Marriage à la Mode’ in which he portrays an arranged marriage in 18th century England. It will consider Hogarth’s satirical objects and their relevance to today’s society.
William Hogarth’s six paintings – known as ‘Marriage à la Mode’ – portray the story of an unsuccessful and artificially arranged upper-class marriage in England in the mid 18th century.
Painting 1 – The Marriage Settlement
This shows the final dealings between an aristocrat who is burdened a lot of debt (sitting on the right) and a wealthy merchant (sitting in the middle) to arrange the marriage of their children. The aristocrat is desperate for money; the merchant wants him and his daughter to raise their social status by marrying into an aristocratic family. The two young people show no interest in each other: the girl is weeping (consoled by her lawyer); the young man has contracted syphilis as shown by the tell-tale black spot on his neck. In the corner of the painting the chained dogs show what this marriage will be like.
Today some ethnic and religious groups still use arranged marriages – a system which is usually seen as unfair on the wife. It is also possible for someone not from these groups to choose their marriage partner not on true love, but on material qualities such as wealth.
Painting 2 – The Téte à Téte
This title is wholly ironic since the husband and wife have spent the night apart. The husband is very tired, because he has been out all night partying, visiting women, drinking and gambling. The dog sniffs a lady’s cap that hangs from the husband’s pocket. The wife seems extremely content too: she too has been having an affair with someone who overturned his chair in his haste to leave and not be caught by the husband.
Infidelity is still the biggest cause of divorce today, but for us divorce is easier. The husband’s excessive lifestyle will cause money problems and in our society drugs might be a suitable analogy.
Painting 3 – The Inspection
This painting shows a doctor’s surgery. All the characters display the signs of syphilis – black spots and sores on the face, especially round the mouth. In the 18th century there was no cure for this sexually transmitted disease.
If you do not practice safe sex, then even today, with new sexually transmitted diseases around, the risks of promiscuous, unprotected sex are very high.
Painting 4 – The Toilette
The wife’s father-in-law has died. The crowns and coronets strewn on the table show that the wife has assumed the title of the new countess. There is a child’s coral teething ring in the painting, but no sign of the child – suggesting a lack of love and of maternal care. The husband is even present in this painting. On the wall the paintings on the wall show scenes of sex, betrayal and seduction from the classical world and Hogarth uses to suggest that the countess and her lawyer are having a sexual relationship. (Sturgis & Clayson 235)
We do not have titles in the USA, but the sycophants in this painting remind me of the hangers on that surround some very famous celebrities. The neglect of the child is important too. We expect child neglect to be associated with the poor; however, it can happen in very rich families too, especially if the parents are too busy or believe that money can make up for parental attention and affection.
Painting 5 – The Bagnio
A bagnio was an inexpensive hotel where people could rent out rooms by the hour cheaply for sex. The lawyer/lover and the countess have been interrupted during sex by the husband, who has received a fatal wound in the sword fight which ensued. The lawyer is seen hurriedly escaping through the window.
This particular situation could not be repeated today, but with the availability of hand guns in the USA, it is possible to imagine a cheated husband reacting with violence to finding his wife in bed with another man.
Painting 6 – The Lady’s Death
In the final scene of the series, back at her father’s house, the wife has taken an overdose and is dying because of the execution of her lover for the murder of her husband. The baby already displays all the signs of having syphilis. The wife’s father, the merchant, shows his pragmatic nature by pulling the wedding band from his daughter’s finger.
Hogarth is not satirizing suicide in this painting, but he is showing the disastrous and tragic end of a doomed and arranged marriage. (Egerton 32)
It would be possible to imitate Hogarth’s paintings and use similar details to satirize modern morality. The life of a very famous celebrity, several times divorced perhaps and with a drug problem, would fit this sequence of images well – especially painting four when the countess is surrounded by hangers on. Visually you could include the evidence of children (but keep them invisible) and there could be tiny visual details in the picture showing evidence of drug use.
Egerton, Judy. Hogarth’s ‘Marriage à la Mode.’ 1997. Cambridge, MA: Yale University Press. Print.
Sturgis, Alexander & Clayson, Hollis. Understanding Paintings: Themes in Art Explored and Explained. 2003. London: Mitchell Beazley. Print.