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Marriage A-la-Mode[fn 1] is a series of six pictures painted by William Hogarth between 1743 and 1745 depicting a pointed skewering of upper class 18th century society. This moralistic warning shows the disastrous results of an ill-considered marriage for money and satirises patronage and aesthetics. The pictures are exhibited in the National Gallery, London.
This series of paintings were not received as well as his other moral tales, A Harlot's Progress (1732) and A Rake's Progress (1735), and when they were finally sold in 1751, it would be for a much lower sum than the artist had hoped for.
In Marriage A-la-Mode, Hogarth challenges the traditional view that the rich live virtuous lives with a heavy satire on the notion of arranged marriages. In each piece, he shows the young couple and their family and acquaintances at their worst: engaging in affairs, drinking, gambling, and numerous other vices. This is regarded by many[who?] as his finest project, certainly the best example of his serially-planned story cycles.
In the first of the series, The Marriage Settlement (the name on its frame), called The marriage contract by Hogarth, he shows an arranged marriage between the son of bankrupt Earl Squanderfield and the daughter of a wealthy but miserly city merchant. Construction on the earl's new mansion, visible through the window, has stopped, and a usurer negotiates payment for further construction at the center table. The gouty earl proudly points to a picture of his family tree, rising from William the Conqueror. The son views himself in the mirror, showing where his interests in the matter lie. The distraught merchant's daughter is consoled by the lawyer Silvertongue while polishing her wedding ring. Even the faces on the walls appear to have misgivings. Two dogs chained to each other in the corner mirror the situation of the young couple.
In the second, The Tête à Tête (the name on its frame), called Shortly after the marriage, there are signs that the marriage has already begun to break down. The husband and wife appear uninterested in one another, amidst evidence of their separate overindulgences the night before. A small dog finds a lady's cap in the husband's coat pocket, indicating his adulterous ventures. A broken sword at his feet shows that he has been in a fight. The open posture of the wife also indicates unfaithfulness. As Hogarth once noted: "A lock of hair falling thus cross the temples ... has an effect too alluring to be strictly decent, as is very well known to the loose and lowest class of women." The disarray of the house and the servant holding a stack of unpaid bills shows that the affairs of the household are a mess.
The third in the series, The Inspection (the name on its frame), called The visit to the quack doctor by Hogart, shows the viscount (the earl's son) visiting a quack with a young prostitute. According to one interpretation, the viscount, unhappy with the mercury pills meant to cure his syphilis, demands a refund while the young prostitute next to him dabs an open sore on her mouth, an early sign of syphilis. But according to the analysis of Judy Egerton, the curator of the National Gallery's exhibition, the interpretation is very different: The viscount has brought the child to the doctor because he believes he has infected her with syphilis. The woman with the knife is the girl's mother, feigning anger in order to blackmail the viscount, who is being set up. The child already had the disease when her mother sold her to him, either because he was not her first "protector" or because she inherited the illness from her syphilitic father, who is the quack doctor.
In the fourth, The Toilette (the name on its frame), called The countess's morning levee by Hogart, the old earl has died, so the son is now the new earl and his wife is the countess. The countess sits with her back to her guests, oblivious to them, as a servant attends to her toilette (grooming). The lawyer Silvertongue from the first painting is reclining next to the countess, suggesting the existence of an affair. This point is underlined by the child in front of the pair, pointing to the horns on the statue of Actaeon, a symbol of cuckoldry. Paintings in the background include the biblical story of Lot and his daughters, Jupiter and Io, and the rape of Ganymede. The Actaeon and several other figurines are seen marked for auction. Such paintings show the African, presumed to be untamed fetish-worshipper and hunter, now fashioned into an icon of courtly style.
In the fifth painting, The Bagnio (the name on its frame), called The killing of the earl by Hogart, the new earl has caught his wife in a bagnio with her lover, the lawyer, and is fatally wounded. As she begs forgiveness from the stricken man, the murderer in his nightshirt makes a hasty exit through the window. A picture of a woman with a squirrel on her hand hanging behind the countess contains lewd undertones. Masks on the floor indicate that the couple have been at a masquerade.
Finally, in the sixth painting, The Lady's Death (the name on its frame), called The suicide of the countess by Hogart, the countess poisons herself in her grief and poverty-stricken widowhood, after her lover is hanged at Tyburn for murdering her husband. An old woman carrying her baby allows the child to give her a kiss, but the mark on the child's cheek and the caliper on her leg suggest that disease has been passed onto the next generation. The countess's father, whose miserly lifestyle is evident in the bare house, removes the wedding ring from her finger.
These pictures were at first poorly received by the public, to the great disappointment of the artist. He sold them to a Mr. Lane of Hillington for one hundred and twenty guineas. The frames alone had cost Hogarth four guineas each, so his initial remuneration for painting this valuable series was only sixteen shillings over a hundred pounds. From Mr. Lane's estate, they became the property of his nephew, Colonel Cawthorn. In May 1796 they were sold by auction at Christie's, Pall Mall, for the sum of one thousand guineas; the purchaser was John Julius Angerstein. They are now owned by the British government and are part of the collection of the National Gallery.
It had been Hogarth's intention to follow the Marriage A-la-Mode series with a companion series called The Happy Marriage, however, this series was never completed and only exists as a series of unfinished sketches.
Although this series of paintings are works of art in their own right, their original purpose was to provide the subjects for the series of engraved copper plate prints. By the nature of the process, when engraving copper plates, the image engraved on the plate by the engraver is reversed, that is to say, a mirror image of the final print. Normally, when undertaking paintings that are to be engraved, the painting is produced the "right way round" -- not reversed - and then the engraver views it in a mirror as he undertakes the engraving. Hogarth was an engraver himself and disliked this course of action using mirrors, so unusually, he produced the paintings for Marriage à-la-mode already reversed so the engraver could directly copy them.
It would normally be expected to view the series of prints moving from left to right and Hogarth would have taken this into account when composing the original paintings.
Commentators have used a variety of names for the individual paintings, but as the paintings are presently in the National Gallery the names used there are used here.
^Spelled Marriage A-la-mode by Hogarth himself according to Robert L. S. Cowley. Cowley writes the following about the names of the paintings given by Hogarth and the names later written on their frames: It is worth noting that Hogarth's titles are marginally more expressive and less informative than the later ones.