For centuries, the English have been fascinated by the sexual exploits and squalid greed of the aristocracy, and these are the subjects of the six-part series Marriage A-la-Mode, which illustrates the disastrous consequences of marrying for money rather than love. The basic story is of a marriage arranged by two self-seeking fathers – a spendthrift nobleman who needs cash and a wealthy City of London merchant who wants to buy into the aristocracy. It was Hogarth’s first moralising series satirising the upper classes.
The six pictures were painted in about 1743 to be engraved and then offered for sale after the engravings were finished. The engravings are uncoloured, reversed versions of the paintings. Published in 1745, the engravings were offered to subscribers at a guinea a set. They proved instantly popular and gave Hogarth’s work a wide audience. The paintings were offered for sale by twelve noon on 6 June 1751, but only attracted two bidders, one of whom bought them all for £126.
For centuries, the English have been fascinated by the sexual exploits and squalid greed of the aristocracy, and these are the subjects of one of the supreme achievements of British painting – Hogarth’s six-part series Marriage A-la-Mode, which illustrates the disastrous consequences of marrying for money rather than love.
The basic story is of a marriage arranged by two self-seeking fathers – a spendthrift nobleman who needs cash and a wealthy City of London merchant who wants to buy into the aristocracy. The title, though little else, is taken from John Dryden’s play Marriage A-la-Mode first performed in 1672. Hogarth was a devoted play-goer and made his name as a painter with a scene from John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. But for this series he invented the characters, plot and the title of each scene. The pictures were painted to be engraved and then offered for sale ‘to the Highest Bidder’ after the engravings were finished.
In his ‘Autobiographical Notes’ compiled in 1763, Hogarth recalls that after ‘a few years’ of painting portraits and conversation pieces, he realised that this ‘manner of painting was not sufficiently paid to do everything my family required‘. He decided to try the new approach of painting and engraving ‘modern moral subjects’ which he described as so novel as to be a ’Field unbroke up in any Country or any age‘. His new focus on morality was characteristic of his own approach to life, satirising vice and folly. The first of his ’modern moral subjects‘ was A Harlot’s Progress, in six scenes completed in 1731 and engraved by Hogarth himself as a set of six prints published in 1732. A Rake’s Progress in eight scenes followed; the paintings were completed by mid-1734 and the engravings published in June 1735. Both series sold out and proved extremely successful with people from all walks of life.
The writer Henry Fielding described Hogarth as a ‘Comic History Painter’, but one whose characters are free from the ’distortions and exaggerations of caricature‘. History painting was the most prestigious of the genres, depicting heroic scenes from the past and from mythology intended to inspire and educate the viewer. The characters in Hogarth’s ’modern moral subjects' are far from heroic but are equally intended to educate.
Marriage A-la-Mode was Hogarth’s first moralising series satirising the upper classes, which exposed the shallowness and stupidity of people with more money than taste who are unable to distinguish good from bad. The engravings were instantly popular and gave Hogarth’s work a wide audience. Like A Harlot’s Progress, they were offered to subscribers at a guinea a set. As a receipt for payment of the first half-guinea, subscribers were issued with a print of Hogarth’s etching Characters and Caricaturas, based on one of the sixteenth-century Italian artist Agostino Carracci’s sheets of caricatures. Hogarth intended to demonstrate that an infinite variety of characters could be shown without resorting to caricature.
Hogarth probably worked on the paintings of Marriage A-la-Mode throughout 1743, and perhaps in the early part of 1744. He had engraved his earlier series A Harlot’s Progress and A Rake’s Progress himself, but he decided to employ three French engravers who were working in London for Marriage A-la-Mode, each working on two plates in the series. The engravings, published in 1745, are uncoloured, reversed versions of the paintings.
The paintings were offered for sale by twelve noon on 6 June 1751. Perhaps the subjects had become too familiar in the form of engravings as one of only two bidders, John Lane, came forward and he purchased the set of paintings for £126.
The deliberate and assured design of the first three scenes is not matched in the last three. Scene five was largely worked out on the canvas as Hogarth went along. No preliminary studies are known and none may have been made. Hogarth claimed that he designed in his mind’s eye without directly drawing it at the time.
Scene 1: The Marriage Settlement: The Earl of Squander is arranging the marriage of his son to the daughter of a rich Alderman of the City of London. The Alderman, who is plainly dressed, holds the marriage contract, while his daughter behind him listens to a young lawyer, Silvertongue. The Earl’s son, the Viscount, admires his face in a mirror. Two dogs, chained together in the bottom left corner, perhaps symbolise the marriage.
Scene 2: The Tête à Tête: The young couple’s home reflects their own antipathy and disharmony. The tired Viscountess, who appears to have given a card party the previous evening, is at breakfast in the couple’s expensive house, which is now in disorder. The Viscount returns exhausted from a night spent away from home, probably at a brothel: the dog sniffs a lady’s cap in his pocket.
Scene 3: The Inspection: The third scene takes place in the room of a French doctor (M. de la Pillule). The Viscount is seated with his child mistress beside him, he has apparently given her the venereal disease syphilis, as indicated by the black spot on his neck.
Scene 4: The Toilette: After the death of the old Earl the wife is now the Countess, with a coronet above her bed and over the dressing table, where she sits. She is talking to her admirer Silvertongue while having her hair dressed. She has also become a mother, and a child’s teething coral hangs from her chair. The lawyer Silvertongue invites her to a masquerade, like the one depicted on the screen to which he points.
Scene 5: The Bagnio: This episode takes place in a bagnio. The word was traditionally used to describe coffee houses which offered Turkish baths, but by 1740 it meant a place where rooms were provided for the night with no questions asked. The Countess and the lawyer have retired there after the masquerade. The young Earl has followed them and is dying from a wound inflicted by Silvertongue, who escapes through the window, while the Countess pleads forgiveness.
Scene 6: The Lady’s Death: The final scene takes place in the house of the Countess’s father. She has taken poison on learning that her lover has been hanged for the murder of the Earl, reported in the broadsheet at her feet. Her child, deformed and crippled by congenital syphilis, embraces her and her father takes a ring from her finger. An apothecary scolds the servant whom he accuses of obtaining the poison.