William Hogarth, Marriage A-la-Mode

William Hogarth, Marriage A-la-Mode, c. 1743, series of six paintings, oil on canvas, 69.9 x 90.8 cm (The National Gallery, London)

Hogarth’s series consists of six paintings which served as models for the engravings: 1. The Marriage Settlement, 2. The Tête à Tête, 3. The Inspection, 4. The Toilette, 5. The Bagnio, 6. The Lady’s Death.

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the National Gallery in London. We’re looking at a set of six paintings by William Hogarth, who’s best known for making prints, not paintings.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:13] [The] 18th century is an interesting moment, especially in England and France, where we have the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution and as a result, a widening middle class that wants to buy art.

Dr. Zucker: [0:25] You have the landed aristocracy, which is in some ways beginning to lose power to a new merchant class that is becoming powerful because it’s becoming wealthy.

Dr. Harris: [0:35] Whereas before you had art that was serving the aristocracy, princes, monarchs, the church, we now begin to have art that is made for this growing middle-class audience and we have prints that are being sold to a wide public and art becoming a commodity, something that large numbers of people buy.

Dr. Zucker: [0:54] Prints are a lot less expensive than paintings, and Hogarth’s intent here was to use these paintings as a model for the prints that he was going to produce, and then he would sell his prints for about a shilling apiece. Now, that was more than a working-class person could afford, but it was well within the means of this new middle class.

Dr. Harris: [1:11] Hogarth is becoming a kind of artist entrepreneur, something that might be very familiar to us in the 21st century when art is still so closely allied to commerce, to galleries, to money-making.

Dr. Zucker: [1:22] This is so targeted to that new middle class because it is a very deeply moral set of images, but it’s also a set of images that is full of fun and makes fun of the aristocracy. The entire set is known as “Marriage A-la-Mode,” and it’s prompted by this concern in the 18th century that marriages were sometimes arranged for economic benefit rather than for love.

Dr. Harris: [1:46] “Marriage A-la-Mode” means “modern marriage” or “the marriage of the day.” The entire series, these six paintings, tell the story of an aristocratic family named wonderfully the Squanderfields, suggesting that they’ve squandered their aristocratic fortune.

[2:02] Lord Squanderfield has to have his son marry the daughter of a wealthy merchant so he can maintain his estate and all his worldly possessions, and the wealthy merchant’s daughter gets, in return, the aristocratic title.

Dr. Zucker: [2:17] What we have is an exchange. It is a kind of economic deal that’s taking place, that’s being brokered here. Let’s look at the painting.

[2:25] On the right, we see Lord Squanderfield. He’s pointing to his family tree, which begins with a medieval knight, suggesting what he’s bringing to the table is this great lineage. Over on the far left, you see his son in blue, and he’s picking some snuff out of a box, and he looks really like a dilettante.

Dr. Harris: [2:44] He’s actually looking in the mirror too, gazing at his own reflection.

Dr. Zucker: [2:49] We have no sympathy for him whatsoever.

Dr. Harris: [2:51] The woman behind him who he’s going to marry, he has his back to, he’s not paying any attention to her. This is an arranged marriage. The woman is being talked into it [by] someone we’re going to see later in the story.

Dr. Zucker: [3:02] His name is Silvertongue and he’s a counselor. Clearly, Hogarth is making fun of him and talking about him as a smooth talker.

Dr. Harris: [3:09] What’s interesting is that the way that Lord Squanderfield with his gout-ridden foot, he’s situated in between the family tree and this dowry that he’s being paid. He’s saying, “Look, I’m bringing a lot to the table here. I’ve got this long aristocratic lineage. This money that’s piled up, this isn’t even enough for me.”

Dr. Zucker: [3:27] That’s because if you look out the window, he’s building a new mansion and he needs to finance that. We see a lawyer at the table, and we also see the merchant himself. That is that young woman’s father, and they’re attending to the business transaction.

Dr. Harris: [3:41] The architect stares out the window at the building that he’s dreaming of constructing.

Dr. Zucker: [3:46] Everybody is in this for their own self-interest, with the exception of the young couple. The young man, self-involved. The young woman looks inconsolable.

Dr. Harris: [3:55] These two individuals will add to the disaster that is their end here.

Dr. Zucker: [4:00] Let’s move to the second canvas. This is “Tête à Tête,” which means head-to-head, face-to-face.

Dr. Harris: [4:05] The husband has come home from a night of gambling and drinking and…

Dr. Zucker: [4:10] And womanizing.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] …Dr. Harris: [4:12] womanizing.

Dr. Zucker: [4:13] How can we tell?

Dr. Harris: [4:14] The dog sniffing at what looks like a woman’s bonnet in his pocket, and he looks he hasn’t slept at all, but his wife looks like she’s had some fun of her own while her husband was away. Her bodice is undone. She looks flirtatious, as though perhaps her lover has just left when her husband’s come home.

[4:32] She seems to be signaling with a mirror held above her head, to her lover perhaps. The chair is overturned, an instrument is on the floor, a music book is open. There’s an implication that lovemaking has taken place here and has just ended when the husband has come home.

Dr. Zucker: [4:48] Music was a traditional symbol of pleasure.

Dr. Harris: [4:51] And sensuality and lovemaking. In the room, just past where they are, we see images of saints. We have Hogarth commenting on the immorality of this couple.

Dr. Zucker: [5:01] To make sure that we don’t miss these signals, Hogarth has placed a third figure in the foreground. He’s a kind of accountant and you can see that he’s had it. He holds receipts, he holds bills, and he’s thrown his hands up. He can’t get this young couple to take their finances seriously.

Dr. Harris: [5:19] If you look at the mantlepiece, we’ve got all sorts of knickknacks lined up there that look like they have been recently purchased and look inexpensive and gaudy compared to this aristocratic environment with these oil paintings and gilded frames.

Dr. Zucker: [5:33] That’s the contrast that’s important, I think, for Hogarth here. He’s making this sharp distinction between these tawdry things that they have brought in, this young couple and the classicism that is a part of this aristocratic life.

Dr. Harris: [5:46] The aristocracy has this reputation that they’ve inherited, these values that have accrued to them over centuries, but they’re values that don’t reflect the reality of their lives.

Dr. Zucker: [5:57] You can also see, in addition, perhaps a painting that the man has brought in, that’s partially obscured by the curtain and all that’s visible is a nude foot.

Dr. Harris: [6:07] On a bed.

Dr. Zucker: [6:08] On a bed, and so this would have been a very clear signal in the 18th century [of] a lewd painting. In all these paintings actually, the art work really tells a meta story. They comment on the scene that is being enacted and we can see that right over the mantle.

[6:23] We have a classical sculpture, but its nose is broken as if it had been knocked over at some party. Behind it, a painting of “Cupid Among the Ruins.” That is, love itself is here ruined, love itself has become a disaster. Let’s look at the third painting.

[6:39] This canvas is called the “The Inspection,” and it takes place in a doctor’s office.

Dr. Harris: [6:43] The apothecary or the doctor on the left seems to be cleaning his glasses, which makes one worried about the kind of inspection he’s going to perform, and the woman behind him is obviously his assistant, but they are both clearly suffering from syphilis.

Dr. Zucker: [6:59] This is an important point. Lord Squanderfield — the younger Lord Squanderfield — actually has a sign of syphilis, which is that large black form on his neck, and we see that throughout these canvases, and so we know he is likely visiting prostitutes, he is living a life of debauchery, right from the beginning, and clearly infecting his young wife.

Dr. Harris: [7:19] Here, clearly, he’s infected a young woman who he has brought with him to the doctor’s office who seems to be applying some ointment to a sore on her mouth. It’s ghastly.

Dr. Zucker: [7:29] Hogarth is doing everything he can to remove any kind of sympathy we could possibly have for this young man.

Dr. Harris: [7:34] He seems to be saying to the apothecary, “Your medicine isn’t working. Give me my money back.”

Dr. Zucker: [7:40] The woman seems to be quite angered by that, whereas the apothecary himself, seems to be not particularly concerned, but look at the caricature that Hogarth brings to the rendering of these figures. The apothecary himself, that’s just a disreputable face.

Dr. Harris: [7:53] Again, the surroundings tell us something about the figures. In the medical cabinet we see a model of a human figure next to a skeletal model. And on the left side, we see a skull, which is also a symbol of death, but no one is taking seriously the fact that they’re going to die one day.

Dr. Zucker: [8:10] In fact, the young Lord Squanderfield here seems to be in a very good mood. Let’s move on to the fourth canvas.

Dr. Harris: [8:16] This one is called “The Toilette,” so that means here that the woman is at her dressing table. She’s having her hair done, she’s getting all dressed up, she’s having her make-up done and she’s surrounded by her friends.

[8:29] Notice she’s not with her child. We do have an indication that she has had a child because we have a string of coral beads that would have been used for teething for children, but her child in nowhere in sight. She is not a good mother. She’s hanging out with her friends instead.

Dr. Zucker: [8:43] She’s in her bedroom and her bedroom is this very public place, which is not so uncommon for the aristocracy, but we see on the left, for a second time now, the counselor Silvertongue, and he looks right at home.

[8:54] Now this, to the 18th century, would have suggested that he was actually, illicitly, the young woman’s lover now. Remember, he was the one who was trying to talk her into the marriage, to console her, and he has taken full advantage.

Dr. Harris: [9:07] There is music-making and drinking and obviously figures who were also suffering from syphilis. The figure on the far right seems to be holding tickets and pointing to an image of a masked ball.

Dr. Zucker: [9:19] The paintings on the wall that we’re seeing are also important and make a kind of comment on the scene that we see, paintings that are about trespassing of norms of behavior. Of course, that’s exactly what this painting is about.

Dr. Harris: [9:32] Two of the paintings on the wall are about Zeus disguising himself in order to have a love affair and that’s exactly what we are going to see, actually, in the next scene.

Dr. Zucker: [9:42] Here it’s night. This is the fifth painting. Here, we are no longer in an aristocratic house, we are in a place of disrepute. This is the kind of room that you would hire when you didn’t want anybody to know what you were doing.

[9:55] What we see is the young woman on her knees as her lover — that would be Silvertongue — flees out the window. He’s fleeing because he has just impaled her husband with his sword. She is beseeching him asking for forgiveness because Silvertongue and the young woman were caught in the act.

Dr. Harris: [10:14] They had clearly been at a masked ball. We see their discarded clothing, we see a mask.

Dr. Zucker: [10:20] In the last scene, Hogarth sums up by showing the death of the young woman, so now the husband and the wife are dead. The wife has died because she’s poisoned herself when she’s read in the newspaper that’s at her feet that her lover, Silvertongue, has been hanged.

Dr. Harris: [10:36] For the murder of her husband, that’s right. We see the nurse bringing her her child to say goodbye to its mother. It’s a terrible scene. We also see a syphilis spot on the child’s cheek, so we know that the child is sick. This couple is irredeemable. The entire practice of a marriage that’s based on this kind of economic exchange instead of love is really indicted.

Dr. Zucker: [11:00] Well, look, her very father is taking a gold ring from her finger even as she lays dying.

Dr. Harris: [11:06] The dog on the right is another symbol of greediness as it steals meat from the table.

Dr. Zucker: [11:12] Not just meat, but a pig’s head actually. We can see that we’re back in her home. This is not the aristocratic family of the Squanderfields and you can see the Thames River just outside, you can see the city crowding in, and it’s a reminder of the way in which London had changed so radically in the 18th century.

Dr. Harris: [11:29] The great Victorian novelist Thackeray wrote about this set of six paintings and summed up the moral.

[11:36] He wrote, “Don’t listen to evil silver-tongued counselors. Don’t marry a man for his rank or a woman for her money. Don’t frequent foolish auctions and masquerade balls unknown to your husband. Don’t have wicked companions abroad and neglect your wife. Otherwise, you will be run through the body and ruin will ensue and disgrace and Tyburn.”

[11:57] Tyburn is the place where criminals would be hanged.

[12:00] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "William Hogarth, Marriage A-la-Mode," in Smarthistory, December 11, 2015, accessed July 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/william-hogarth-marriage-a-la-mode/.