Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Marriage a la Mode, Part 1: The Marriage Settlement

Where to even begin with William Hogarth? The man was genius. A printmaker by trade, he brought a distinctively British sense of humor to fine art which has left us with amazing insight into the mid-18th century. Marriage a la Mode is arguably his most famous work, a series of six paintings intended to be mass-produced in engravings of equal skill. The series satirizes arranged marriages and the disasters that follow, hence, Marriage a la Mode.

In this introductory piece, we are find ourselves in Earl Squander's mansion. The earl sits on the right with his leg in bandages due to gout. Gout was common among the rich due to eating fine foods in abundance so in Hogarth's work it was used as an indicator of status and personality. Squander points to his family tree while the plainly dressed father of the bride hands over a marriage contract. He is a simple merchant, and his daughter is now the wares he is selling. This is a marriage of business otherwise the series would begin with the actual wedding. Behind the merchant sits his daughter, the victim in this cruel custom of greed. She sits distraught, wringing her handkerchief. He clothing and manner expresses to the viewers that she is a simple, naive young girl. The young lawyer, Silvertongue's sniveling words of assurance fall on deaf ears, she is miserable about her marriage prospect. Next to her sits her future husband, the Viscount. He couldn't be any more opposite from her. The viscount is over-dressed in a rakish manner and is not even concerned about the marriage. In fact, he is incredibly more distracted with the mirror.

As is usual with Hogarth's work, the composition is riddled with symbols and hints to support the story being painted. An additional businessman or architect looks out the window to observe the Earl's new house being erected. The marriage is just another business arrangement that has to be taken care of in the course of the day along with bills and building arrangements. The Earl's wealth is additionally depicted through his fine art collection hanging on the walls. Caravaggio's Medusa is one of those on display. It hangs over the doomed couple.

Perhaps one of the most indicative of the symbols would be the dogs in left corner. Hogarth was a huge fan of dogs and would constantly use them as a narrative caption as to what is really going on in the work. An example of this would be in the Strode Family which contains his own pug in this position. Two dogs are in this piece. One lies down and the other looks off-composition; they are chained to each other. No good can come of this match....

Next, Part 2 >>


  1. Wonderful! I can't wait to read/see the rest.


  2. I have all of these prints in my British literature anthology. They are so quirky and funny.