HOGARTH, William
(b. 1697, London, d. 1764, London)

Marriage à la Mode

c. 1743
Oil on canvas, 70 x 91 cm
National Gallery, London

This is Scene 1 of the series of six, entitled The Marriage Settlement.

Controversial and quarrelsome, Hogarth is one of the most attractive and innovative British artists. Born in London, he trained as an engraver, later studying painting at a private academy, but was frustrated in his ambition to become an English 'history painter'. He blamed this on the vogue for Old Masters and competition from Continental contemporaries. His vociferous patriotism, however, cannot disguise his own indebtedness to French art; nor did he hesitate to advertise his use of 'the best Masters in Paris' to engrave the series Marriage à la Mode, of which this picture is the first.

Since he could not earn a living as a portraitist or monumental painter, Hogarth conceived the notion of 'modern moral subjects' to be sold as engravings on subscription, as well as in their original painted state. In the spirit of the 'comic epics' of Henry Fielding, whom influenced and was later to influence him, these 'comic history paintings' are the works by which we best remember the artist and which most clearly express his own moral certitudes. They are related to sixteenth-century broadsheets, and to the 'conversation pieces' theatrical subjects which Hogarth himself helped to popularise.

Marriage à la Mode, 'representing a Variety of Modern Occurrences in High-Life', was advertised for subscription in April 1743. The theme, an unhappy marriage between the daughter of a rich, miserly alderman merchant and the son of an impoverished earl, was suggested by current events but also indebted to Dryden's comedy of the same name, and by a recent play of Garricks. As the pictures were designed to be engraved - each print a mirror image of the composition incised on a copper plate - the sequence of events in every painting is reversed.

The series thus begins with the proud Earl pointing to his family tree rooted in William the Conqueror; he rests his gouty foot - a sign of degeneracy - on a footstool decorated with his coronet. Behind him is a lavish building in the new classical style, unfinished for lack of money; a creditor is thrusting bills at him. But on the table in front of him is a pile of gold - the bride's dowry just handed him by the bespectacled alderman, who holds the marriage contract. Silvertongue, an ingratiating lawyer, whispers in the ear of the alderman's daughter listlessly twirling her wedding ring on a handkerchief. Turning away from her to take snuff and admire himself in the glass - and, in the engraving, to lead our eye into the next tableau - is the foppish bridegroom. At his feet, symbolic of the couple's plight, are a dog and a bitch chained to each other. From the walls horrid Italian Old Master martyrdoms presage tragedy, and a Gorgon's head screams from an oval frame above the pair.

The rest of the series follows the pathetic adventures of the ill-assorted pair: he frequents a child prostitute and contracts venereal disease; she incurs debts in fashionable pursuits and takes Silvertongue as her lover. Discovered in a house of assignation, the lawyer kills the husband, is arrested and executed. The Countess, back in the alderman' mean house (where the 'low-life' paintings on the walls are Dutch, and the dog is starving) swallows poison; her father strips her wedding ring from her hand and a servant takes her weeping child, whose crippled leg in a brace recalls his tainted inheritance.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.