Marriage à la Mode: The Marriage Settlement by William Hogarth

Marriage à la mode: The Marriage Settlement by William Hogarth (c.1743)

A couple of days ago I featured a portrait of a couple by Thomas Gainsborough.  The type of portrait was known as an “outdoor conversation piece” with it being a group portrait of real people in a landscape setting.  Today I am going to introduce you to another form of art known as “the modern moral subject”.  This form of art was developed by the English artist William Hogarth.  Hogarth had a great desire to be an English painter of grand manner history subjects.  He wanted to break the foreigner’s monopoly in high art. However, unlike the up and coming portrait painter, Joshua Reynolds, he rejected the idea of travelling to Rome where that manner was to be acquired.

Hogarth believed there was enough evidence of the “foreigners’ work” in England without him having to make them pilgrimage to Italy.  The Raphael cartoons, which were considered to be among the greatest treasures of the High Renaissance, were in England.  They had been painted by Raphael as designs for the tapestries that were made to cover the lower walls of the Vatican Sistine Chapel had been brought to England in 1623.  There were also many engravings of great art at hand in England and Hogarth considered travelling through Europe to study High Renaissance art was unnecessary.  Hogarth had created a different role for himself, painting narrative series of “modern moral subjects”.  The novelist and dramatist Henry Fielding called them “comic history paintings”.

My Daily Art Display for today is The Marriage Settlement, the first painting of a set of six entitled Marriage à-la-mode which Hogarth painted between 1743 and 1745.  It is a moralistic warning, which gives us a clear vision of what happens as a result of an ill-conceived marriage, which only took place for financial reasons and not for love.  Art historians believe that this project of Hogarth was his finest.   It is a finely crafted story divided into six parts and I like to consider it as a six-episode pictorial soap opera.

The main protaganists

So now let me introduce you to the characters that are all assembled in this, the first painting of the series.  Seated at the far right of the foreground we have the Earl of Squander.  The index finger of his left hand points to an unfurled parchment depicting his family tree, which shows his family being direct descendents of William, Duke of Normandy (William the Conqueror).    Hogarth has cynically incorporated a broken branch in to the family tree, which was indicative of  a prior marriage, but one outside the nobility and was thus disowned, hence the break from the main tree.  Obviously one would not have shown such a thing on a real family tree but it is reminding the viewers that this great noble’s set of descendents were not quite as noble as the earl would have us believe!   Although titled, the man is almost penniless and heavily in debt due to his foolish ways and needs urgently to replenish his wealth.  Despite his poverty look at the luxurious and costly clothes he is wearing.  There is an arrogance about the man.  He has surrounded himself with symbols of his nobility.  There are coronets everywhere.  If you look carefully you can see how Hogarth has painted them on his foot stool, on the canopy above his head, and even on the head of his crutches.     Observe how Hogarth has painted him with his right foot resting on a stool which is a tell-tale symptom of gout, and which is often associated with overindulgence in alcohol and rich foods.

Sitting across from the Earl, in his red frock coat is The Alderman.  He, unlike the Earl, is extremely rich.  He is what we would now term, the nouveau riche.  However, he is not of the “noble class” and all he wants is to become the grandfather to a noble son.  He has what the Earl needs – money.  The Alderman has what the Alderman needs – nobility and so they have hatched up the plan of a marriage between the Alderman’s daughter and the Earl’s son.

Bride and groom with Silvertongue the lawyer

We can see the bride and groom sitting in the background.  Note how they are not looking at each other, which is Hogarth’s way of illustrating that there is no “love” in this union.  The young girl looks despondent but resigned.  Her clothes are quite plain in comparison to those of her new husband.  She is fiddling nervously with her handkerchief through which she has threaded her wedding ring.  We feel a little sorry for her.  Next to her stands Silveretongue, the lawyer.  He has a somewhat fawning appearance as he is outlines the terms of the marriage to her.

On the other hand, there is nothing about the groom’s appearance and demeanour that we can possibly like.  The young man, the Viscount, has a foppish air about him.  He sits with his back to his new wife.  He is dressed expensively in a French-style wearing a powdered wig with a black bow in the back of it.  His high heeled shoes and open spindly-legged posture give him a distinctly effeminate look.  There is a black spot on his neck which some believe indicates that he may have syphilis or scrofula.  He vainly stares at his reflection in the mirror in a narcissistic manner.

The tethered couple

On the floor at the feet of the Viscount we can see two unhappily-looking animals tethered together, a bitch and a dog.  Despite being tied together, they seem to be ignoring each other.   This is how Hogarth cleverly insinuates and compares pictorially the entrapment that the marriage has brought to the newly-married couple.  It is a tethering together of the man and the woman in a loveless arrangement.  The arrangement is purely something the Earl and the Alderman wanted. For the Earl it would be a future heir and for the Alderman it would mean and entry to the noble class.

The sixth character in this composition is the man standing looking out of the window, between the Earl and the Alderman.  He is the architect.  He holds in his hands a set of architectural plans and as we look through the window we can make out an un-finished building the cost of which has probably bled the Earl dry of his money.  The architect in a way is part of this ill thought out marriage as he needs the Earl to have his coffers refilled so that he can get back to work on this grand building project.

The final player in this scene is the man leaning over the table handing back to the Earl his mortgage papers which have been signed in return for the bill of exchange provided by the Alderman, which was his daughter’s dowry.  On the table we see a pile of gold coins which the Earl has just received from the Alderman.

Hogarth has amusingly given us one more clue that this marriage is doomed to failure.   Around the room he has added a number of paintings all of which depict scenes of devastation, tragedy or martyrdom.  We see David killing Goliath, St Lawrence being burnt at the stake, The Massacre of the Innocent, Cain slaying Abel and Judith decapitating Holofernes.

Obviously the artist has no doubt as to how this story will unfold!

Tomorrow we will look at the second painting in the series and see how the tale unfolds