HOGARTH’S “MARRIAGE A LA MODE”Category: Architecture + Painting
The famous set of pictures called “Marriage a la Mode” contains the most important and highly wrought of the Hogarth comedies. The care and method with which the moral grounds of these pictures are laid is as remarkable as the wit and skill of the observing and dexterous artist. He has to describe the negotiations pending between the daughter of a rich citizen Alderman and young Lord Viscount Squanderfield, the dissipated son of a gouty old Earl. Pride and pomposity appear in every accessory surrounding the Earl. He sits in gold lace and velvet — as how should such an Earl wear anything but velvet and gold lace?
His coronet is everywhere; on his footstool on which reposes one gouty toe turned out; on the sconces and looking glasses; on the dogs; on his lordships very crutches; on his great chair of state and the great baldachin behind him.; under which he sits pointing majestically to his pedigree, which shows that his race is sprung from the loins of William the Conqueror, and confronting the old Alderman from the City, who has mounted his sword for the occasion, and wears his Alderman’s chain, and has brought a bag full of money, mortgage-deeds, and thousand pound notes, for the arrangement of the transaction pending between them. Whilst the steward (a methodist, therefore a hypocrite and cheat, for Hograth scorned a papist and a dissenter ), is negotiating between the old couple, their children sit together united but apart. My lord is admiring his countenance in the glass, while his bride is twiddling her marriage ring on her pocket handkerchief, and listening with rueful countenance to Councellor Silvertongue, who has been drawing the settlements. The girl is pretty, but the painter, with a curious watchfulness, has taken care to give her a likeness to her father, as in the young Viscount’s face you see a resemblance to the Earl, his noble sire. The sense of the coronet pervades the picture, as it is supposed to do the mind of its wearer.
The pictures around the room are sly hints indicating the situation of the parties about to marry. A martyr is led to the fire; Andromeda is offered to sacrifice; Judith is going to slay Hol-ofernes. There is the ancestor of the house (in the picture it is the Earl himself as a young man), with a comet over his head indicating that the career of the family is to be brilliant and brief.
In the second picture, the old Lord must be dead for Madame has now the countess’s coronet over her bed and toilet glass, and sits listening to that dangerous Councellor Silvertongue whose portrait now actually hangs up in her room, whilst the councellor takes his ease on the sofa by her side, evidently the familiar of the house and the confident of the mistress. My lord takes his pleasure elsewhere than at home, whither he returns jaded and tipsy from the “Rose” to find his wife yawning in her drawing-room, her whist- party over, and the daylight streaming in; or he amuses himself with the very worst company abroad, whilst his wife sits at home listening to the foreign singers, or wastes her money at auctions, or, worse still, seeks amusements at masquerades. The dismal end is known. My lord draws upon the counsellor, who kills him, and is apprehended whilst endeavouring to escape. My lady goes back perforce to the Alderman in the city, and faints upon reading counsellor Silvertongue’s dying speech at Tyburn; where the counsellor has been executed for sending his lordship out of this world. [...] What man was he who executed these portraits — so various, and so admirable? In the London National Gallery most of us have seen the best and most carefully finished series of his comic paintings, and the portrait of his own honest face, of which the bright blue eyes shine out from the canvas and give you an idea of that keen and brave look with which William Hogarth regarded the world. No man was ever less of a hero; you see him before you, and can fancy what he was — a jovial honest London citizen, stout and sturdy; a hearty plain-spoken man, loving his laugh, his friend, his glass, his roast-beef of Old England, and having a proper bourgeois scorn for French frogs, for monseers, and wooden shoes in general, for foreign fiddlers, foreign singers, and above all, for foreign painters, whom he held in the most amusing contempt.
(From The English Humourists of the Eighteenth Century by W. M. Thackeray)