William Hogarth’s Marriage à-la-mode is a series of six satirical paintings intended to be viewed in sequence. Painted from 1743 to 1745, it is the third series of paintings Hogarth is known for (the others being The Harlot’s Progress and The Rake’s Progress.)
Marriage à-la-mode tells the (dreadful) story of an arranged marriage between the daughter of a rich, tight-fisted city merchant and the son of totally broke Earl Squanderfield. Hogarth emphasizes the worst aspects of such a marriage (unhappiness and infidelity) and the immorality of the upper classes through the actual action of and visual hints in the paintings. Spoiler alert: everyone dies.
painting 1: The Marriage Settlement
In the bottom left corner, two dogs are chained together – symbolizing the arranged marriage. The son of Earl Squanderfield gazes at himself in a mirror, while his future wife unhappily next to him. The lawyer Silvertongue tries to console her while the Medusa head on the wall expresses horror. Her father, the man in the plain red coat at the table, holds the marriage contract (detailing property ownership and such), across from Earl Squanderfield, wearing a fancy red coat. His crutches and bandaged foot indicate he has gout, the “rich man’s disease”. The Earl proudly holds a family tree that unfurls onto the floor. We know the Earl is bankrupt because the other man at the table is a loan shark demanding more money for the construction of the Earl’s new mansion.
painting 2: The Tête à Tête
This is the painting most people see in art history books. It depicts the day after the married couple has spent the night carousing – separately. A servant walks away rolling his eyes, holding unpaid bills – the couple is already squandering the wife’s money. Both are having affairs, indicated by the dog tugging a woman’s cap from the husband’s pocket and the wife’s “open” posture (her legs are apart, oh noes!). The broken sword at the husband’s feet shows he lost a fight last night, and cards on the floor hint that the wife held a gambling party.
painting 3: The Inspection
The husband’s nights spent at the brothels has unsurprisingly resulted in sickness. He takes an infected young prostitute (like, really young), dabbing at a syphilis sore on her mouth, to a French “doctor”, Monsieur de la Pillule. Hogarth put a dark spot on the husband’s neck to show he’s been taking mercury pills, the only “treatment” for syphilis at the time. The husband holds out a box of mercury pills, probably trying to return them for another remedy. The older woman, who also has dark marks on her face, may be the girl prostitute’s mother.
painting 4: The Toilette
In the 1700s, a toilette was the rich people’s process of getting ready for the day – having your hair done, having the servant dress you, etc. It was fashionable to invite people to watch and talk with you in your bedroom as you were getting ready, which is what is happening in this painting.
The crown above the wife’s bed and mirror indicate that the husband’s father has died and she is the new countess. There’s also a (barely visible) child’s chew-toy hanging from her chair, although her child isn’t in the painting. The lawyer Silvertongue, from the first painting, sits next to the Countess. Pointing to a painted screen, he invites her to a masquerade ball (a ball is painted on the screen) – definitely an affair in the making or in progress.
Lastly, notice that the Countess is getting her hair done in papillote curls, which you can learn how to do yourself from Janet Stephens’ how-to Papillote Curls video. I highly recommend all her historical hairstyle re-enactment videos!
painting 5: The Bagnio
In England in the 1700s, a bagnio meant a room that you could rent with no questions asked – basically like motel rooms today. The husband has found the Countess in the room with the lawyer Silvertongue; Silvertongue stabbed the husband and now tries to sneak out of the room in his nightgown while the Countess begs her husband’s forgiveness (like he deserves it, giving syphilis to child prostitutes) and a crowd pours into the room.
painting 6: The Lady’s Death
Silvertongue has been hanged for the murder of the husband (see a closeup of the newspaper at the Countess’s feet below) and the Countess has committed suicide in her father’s house from grief and poverty (see the painfully skinny dog to the right).
The elderly servant holds up the Countess’s child to kiss her dead mother; the dark mark on the child’s face indicates she has syphilis too (ugh, it’s horrible!). The Countess’s cheap father takes the wedding ring from her cold finger. The two other men in the painting are the apothecary (the pharmacist), who yells at a servant for buying the poisonous laudanum that the Countess took.
The events in Marriage à-la-mode are actually really awful and depressing, but demonstrate that Hogarth was an expert at packing action, story details, and biting criticism into his paintings.
On the technical side, Hogarth produced these paintings with the intention that they be made into engravings. Because engravings are made mirror-image (so that the print is correct), engravers looked at the paintings in a mirror while they carved. Hogarth thought this was dumb, so he composed the paintings themselves mirror-image so that the engravers wouldn’t have to look in a mirror. What this means is that the flow of the paintings actually goes backwards. But don’t worry too much about it.