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Friday, August 28, 2009

William Hogarth's "Marriage A-La-Mode"

MIR Appraisal Services, Inc. currently has in its collection the complete Hogarth six-part series Marriage-A-la-Mode. William Hogarth’s iconic, satirical work portrayed theatrical narratives deeply influenced by the aesthetic and dramatic flair of local festivals and fairs which he had witnessed during his childhood in Bartholomew Close and Smithfield in London. Hogarthian motifs—the affectations and indiscretions of high society and political injustice—found expression in his paintings and engravings, as in the sequential work Marriage A-la-Mode. Art historian Robert L.S. Crowley praises the work for its impressive range, including “the historical sublime; fashionable portraiture; classical engraving; pious and erotic works; low-life drolleries; tapestry; the woodcut tradition; emblemature” (Crowley 171).

One may read each panel in the series as a theatrical set; in his Autobiographical Notes, Hogarth himself identified each piece as a “stage” and the human figures as “actors” (Cowley 1). As Jack Lindsay asserts,

“He… discovers and develops in his own way the baroque concept of the cosmic theater… developing a dramatic concept of life itself as a series of conflicts and crises, set on the stage of the new self-consciousness and moving towards fulfillment or destruction of self” (Lindsay 223-24).

The manner in which various forms of creative expression dovetail in Hogarth’s masterful paintings and prints supports Hogarth’s novel approach to painting and drawing as storytelling. The theater influenced the visual and sequential aspects of his work; as a “visual biographer”, various literary genres informed his sensitive sense of character and plot development in his “graphic journalism” and “poetic tragedy” (Cowley 1). Using “colours instead of language,” William Hogarth identified the visual arts as “only a much more complicated kind of writing” (Cowley 1, Lindsay 7). In fact, Hogarth’s series, secured between literary “bookends”, was based upon John Dryden’s comedic play Marriage-A-la Mode, and later inspired the epic poem Marriage A-la-Mode: An Humorous Tale in Six Cantos.

Hogarth found engravings to be the best medium for his unorthodox subject matter and artistic approach; in this way, his images could be mass-produced and reach a larger audience without the support of patrons, art critics and the art establishment in general (Lindsay 224). Interestingly enough, the paintings comprising Marriage A-la-Mode (completed 1742-43) served as studies for the final engravings (completed 1743-45). The prints were sold through subscription; interested parties, upon giving the artist a deposit, were then given the decorated subscription ticket, later used to collect the print. An advertisement for the forthcoming series Marriage A-la-Mode ran in the London Post and Advertiser in April 2, 1743:

“Mr. Hogarth intends to publish, by subscription, six prints from copper plates… after his own paintings… representing a variety of Modern Occurrences in High-Life and call’d Marriage A-la-Mode. Particular care will be taken, that there may not be the least Objection to the Decency or Elegancy of the whole Work, and that none of the Characters represented shall be personal” (Cowley 7).

Certainly, notions of “decency” and “elegancy” find ironic treatment in Marriage A-la-Mode in the “passionate recording of the idiosyncrasy of character and habit and occupation” (Webster 177). The lavish, excessively decorative interior spaces house persons with keen moral depravity. The ironic tension between opulent facades and spiritual poverty finds resolution in the ultimately outward manifestation of illness, economic demise, and death; these tragic elements find expression symbolically in the Earl’s foot, crippled with Gout, Viscount Squanderfield’s Scrofula and venereal disease, and the catastrophic deaths of the Viscount, his wife, and her lover. With “enlightened disapproval”, Hogarth confronts immorality on a grand scale, decrying

“…the abuse of rank and status; the arrangement and casual treatment of marriage; irresponsible parenthood; presumptuous womanhood and foppery; manias for building. Gaming, and other forms of collecting; child-prostitution and quackery; forms of xenophobia; the double standards of an enthusiast; the fashion for suicide and dueling” (Cowley 171).

The paintings and sculpture featured in the interior spaces of the prints themselves indicate further nuances and tensions within the narrative. For example, various damaged busts represent “heroes and villains of classical history… Hogarth’s point is that thoughtless connoisseurs followed antiquity in the manner of ‘leaden-headed imitators’” (Craske 31). Too, the David and Goliath, featured in The Marriage Settlement, foreshadows the surprising outcome of the duel between the lawyer, Silvertongue, and Viscount Squanderfield (Cowley 44).

What follows is a summary of events contained within this six-part narrative.

I. The Marriage Settlement

The bridegroom’s father, the Earl, and the bride’s father, the Alderman, tend to legal marriage documents, while the bridegroom, Viscount Squanderfield, pointedly turns away from the others, and the lawyer Silvertongue intimately addresses the bride. The Earl’s left hand gestures towards his family tree, in which a subtle, broken branch portends future troubles; the Earl’s crippled foot symbolizes the disabled earldom; the building scene from the window, supported by scaffolding parallels the crippled figure of the Earl (Cowley 28-9).

II. The Tete a Tete

A peculiar emotional atmosphere dominates the scene. We may infer through the dress of the characters that the husband spent the previous night away from home and has just since returned; the wife, whose face expresses “enticement, amusement, curiosity and some contempt,” appears to have spent the evening at a card party. Art historian Georg Christoph Lichtenberg hypothesizes on the inner-life of the Viscount, commenting, “Nothing holds together in him through inner force…On what does his gaze rest? … Even through the mists of headache which hover round his brow, it is still possible to recognize some traces of deeper heartache” (Cowley 57-8). The Squanderfields’ steward angrily exits the room, apparently appalled by the behavior in the household. The chair which has been upset foreshadows the toppled stool in the final print in the series (Cowley 63).

III. The Inspection

The Viscount escorts his young mistress to a quack doctor, apparently to treat a reoccurring venereal disease. An angry assistant, perhaps a procuress, defends the doctor’s abilities. The phallic cane and Narwhal tusk, and the Viscount’s amused expression gesture towards the dominion of fervent male sexuality, while the tragically young mistress, and the “premature suppression of youthful sensibility” vilify the Viscount’s immoral manipulation and adultery (Cowley 84).

IV. The Toilette

The coronets showcased over the bed and dressing table are visual cues that the former Earl has died; the Viscount is now Earl Squanderfield, and his wife the Countess. Assembled in the bedroom for rituals of the toilette, Silvertongue and Countess Squanderfield share an intimate gaze as a castrato and flutist serenade those in attendance. Coral used for teething hangs from the chair of the Countess, so we may assume that she has given birth to a child, yet the child is not present, showing parental irresponsibility (Cowley 101).

V. The Bagnio

Earl Squanderfield learns of his wife’s infidelities and challenges Silvertongue to a duel; Silvertongue kills the Earl and escapes through the window. The Countess and her lover had attended the public masquerade at the Opera house, hence the costumes on the floor. In this scene, the fulfillment of dramatic crisis coincides with the dismantling of outer affectations; “The reduction of characters to a minimum of clothing is an important means of exposing vanities in Hogarth’s narrative art” (Cowley 130).

VI. The Lady’s Death

The Widow Squanderfield, since moving back to the squalid home of her father, hears news of the execution of Silvertongue; she commits suicide, and her father removes her wedding ring as her child weeps a farewell. The child is marked with ills from their former life in “grandeur”—the calipers suggest that the child has Rickets, and the blemish on the neck suggests either Scofula or Syphilis. This cautionary moral tale concerning the dangers of excess and adultery, finds in the demise of the figure of the Countess Squanderfield throughout the series; Robert L.S. Crowley interprets this demise as the result of a particular naivete: “The Alderman’s daughter comes from a Spartan, repressive home and is consequently thrown off balance in a libertine household” (Cowley 152).


In analyzing the prints of the masterful painter and engraver William Hogarth, one can see his profound influence on graphic satire, and the ways in which his works made way for comic strips and animation (Craske 6-7). With supreme skill, Hogarth explored psychologically complex subject matter, relating personal crises to the tragic ironies of social manners and social injustice.

Jessica Savitz

MIR Appraisal Services, Inc.

307 N. Michigan Avenue, Suite 308

Chicago, IL 60601

Phone: (312) 814-8510

To see the Hogarth prints in person is a dramatic experience indeed; should you desire to view the works of Marriage A-la-Mode at MIR Appraisal Services, Inc., please do please email: or call (312) 814-8510.

Works Cited

Craske, Matthew. William Hogarth. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Cowley, Robert L. S. Hogarth’s Marriage A-La-Mode. New York: Cornell University Press, 1983.

Lindsay, Jack. Hogarth: His Art and His World. New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1977.

Webster, Mary. The Hidden Masters: Hogarth. Danbury: Master Works Press, 1978.

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    Welcome to our blog site! MIR Appraisal Services, Inc. is a fine art and personal property appraisal company dedicated to serving clients throughout the United States and abroad since our incorporation in Chicago in 1994. We specialize in the multi-faceted field of appraising fine art, jewelry, antiques, and decorative items. We also provide professional fine art restoration and conservation treatment for various media, including but not limited to, artworks on canvas, board, masonite, and paper. We offer professional and precise appraisal services carried out by our team of accredited appraisers for the purposes of insurance coverage and claims, charitable donations, estate planning and probate, equitable distribution and fair-market value. We started our art commentary blog site as a venue for colleagues and fellow art enthusiasts to share their experiences within the art community.