Marriage à la Mode: The Toilette by William Hogarth

Marriage a la Mode The Toilette by William Hogarth (c.1743)

This is the fourth day of My Daily Art Display which looks at the set of six Hogarth paintings entitled collectively as Marriage à la Mode.  To follow the story in chronological order you should start at my blog of May 4th.  Today we are at Episode Four of this pictorial soap opera, a veritable tragic-comedy about a doomed marriage.  Today’s painting is the fourth in William Hogarth’s series and is entitled The Toilette. 

There has been a passage of time between the happenings in the first painting in the series when the two young people became husband and wife and the setting for this fourth painting.   We are in the house of the Viscount and his wife.  We are in the ante-chamber of her boudoir as she prepares herself for the trials and tribulations of the coming day.  What is happening is a morning ritual that the nobility copied from the life of the monarch and which was developed in the French Court.  It was known as the lever du roi.  The royal morning toilette unfolded in two phases. The king was joined for the petit lever by his most senior officials, who gave him the day’s news. While they talked to him, the king was given his dressing gown, was shaved and powdered, and relieved himself on his commode. This was followed by the grand lever, a more public morning reception, during which the king took his chocolate, was given his wig and dressed.

If we look above the pink-curtained alcove we see a coronet which signifies the Viscount has become an Earl and means he has inherited the title from his late father.  The Viscount is now the new Earl of Squander and his wife is now Countess of Squander.   This painting is bursting with all the characters Hogarth has added.  Let me introduce them to you.  The now Countess of Squander is the lady on the right, wearing the yellow and silver morning gown sitting at her dressing table.  On the back of her chair, tied to a red ribbon is a child’s teething coral so we know that she has become a mother.  She has her back to her guests with the exception of Silvertongue, the lawyer, who she is in animated conversation with.    Silvertongue is the lawyer whom we saw in the first painting as he carried out the duties of an adviser to the late Earl and consoled the unhappy viscountess.  Behind her stands her hairdresser who is testing the heat of his curling tongs. 

The invitation

The lawyer seems to have become very “close” to the Countess and seems to have made himself quite at home as he lies full length on a sofa.  In his right hand are some tickets – but for what and why?  If we look at his left hand, it is pointing towards a folding-screen which is illustrating a masked company and we can assume that his conversation with the Countess involves inviting her to come with him to some sort of masquerade. As people wore masks at these events they could not be identified and any dubious behaviour carried out by the revellers was done so without the fear of identification.  Such masquerades in those days often went on right through the night and often the men and their partners would slip away to a bagnio, which was a place where rooms could be hired with no questions asked, and where lovers could “consummate their relationship”.  We now begin to realise that the lawyer, Silvertongue, is not just the Countess’ legal adviser.   Another hint at the sexual nature of their relationship is the book which lies against the back of the sofa on which he lies sprawled.  It is La Sopha a 1742 libertine novel by French author Claude Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon.  It is a story concerning a young courtier, Amanzéï, whose soul in a previous life was condemned by Brahma to inhabit a series of sofas, and not to be reincarnated in a human body until two virgin lovers had consummated their passion on him.  It became the favourite reading of all, male and female alike, who enjoyed indulging in erotic fantasies.

The entourage

To the left, on the sofa we have a singer, probably a castrato, a type of male singer which was very popular at the time.  He is sumptuously dressed with his silken waistcoat which is somewhat spoiled by his corpulence.   He wears rings on his ear and all of his fingers.  His profession has brought him great wealth.  Look at his diamond-encrusted tie pin and the buckles on his shoes and on his knees.  The Countess will have paid dearly for this “morning serenade.  Her female companion is mesmerised by the singing and seems about to fall to her knees in homage to the singer.  At the opposite end of the sofa to the fat singer we see a strange looking man with curl papers in his hair.  We know it is not the husband as we have seen him in the three previous paintings and from what we know of his character we know he was unlikely to give up his time to be with his wife at her petit leve.   Behind the sofa we see a very thin flautist who accompanies the singer.  In the background we see two other gentlemen, part of her ladyship’s entourage.  One holds a cup with what looks like a chocolate biscuit dunked in it.  He has the cursed black patch on his lower lip which could mean he is yet another person carrying a sexually-transmitted disease.  Looking at his facial expression, he too seems much enamoured by the singer’s rendition.  His companion, seated behind him, on the other hand, seems less taken by the music as he is sound asleep albeit still clutching hold of his riding crop.

In the background of this painting we see a black servant handing out a cup of possibly tea or hot chocolate to the Countess’ companion.  On the floor, in front of the countess and Silvertongue we see a small black boy wearing an Indian turban.  It was very fashionable in those days to have at least one coloured servant or pageboy and by the way this small child is allowed to be present at the petit leve  he must have been one of the household. 

The Indian boy and Actaeon

It is interesting to note that he is smiling as he holds a figure of a naked man who is wearing antlers on his head.  This symbolises a cuckold – a deceived husband.  The figure is almost certainly Actaeon, the mythical hunter who surprised the goddess Diana while she was bathing naked and who was turned into a stag in punishment and torn to pieces by his own dogs.   This must have been bought at auction by the countess as it still has the lot number affixed to it.  More erotic items can be seen in the basket the boy is rummaging through – the picture on the tray also recalls forbidden erotic pleasures: the married Zeus, in the shape of a swan, approaches the similarly married Queen Leda. 

Scattered on the floor are various invitations received by the Countess along with a number of ugly ornaments, similar to those we saw on the mantelpiece in the second painting of the series.  On the walls there are a number of paintings which we can recognise. Such as Lot and his Daughters, which was a Biblical reference to incest and Jupiter and Io, a Greek mythological tale of seduction concerning Io who was a river goddess.  Jupiter fell in love with the beautiful maiden, and one day, as she rested on the banks of the River, he changed his shape into that of a cloud, and embraced her. He whispered words of love to her, and then planted an immortal kiss upon her upturned cheek.  However the strangest painting on the wall of the Countess’ room is a portrait of Silvertongue himself!   I wonder how she explained that away to her husband!

There are so many things in this painting which leads us to believe that the Countess has or is about to be unfaithful to her husband.  Prior to this painting, we have just looked at the first three paintings in Hogarth’s six piece cycle and we have surely felt sympathy for the young wife.   Let us examine her lot in life.   Forced into a marriage by her father, who was willing to do anything to join the nobility.  Married to a wastrel who we learn was suffering from a sexually transmitted disease and who spends his evening in the company of whores.  However after examining today’s painting, the fourth episode of the story, maybe we are having doubts about our unconditional love for the young woman.  Can we justify her actions by saying it is purely an act of revenge on her wayward husband?