02/05/2011

MARRIAGE A LA MODE

I  was looking for visual materials to support my lessons on Samuel Richardson 's work to my fourth year students -we are reading from Pamela and Clarissa as well as listening/watching bits from adaptations of the latter (if you want, have a look here) - when I bumped into this interesting series of pictures. Isn't marriage between nobility and commoners, one of the topics of these days? Well, apart from that, these images are precious to visualize the social context of the literary works I'm working on.
So, what I want to share with you is this series of paintings by William Hogarth (1697 - 1764) which I thought could be perfectly linked to our discussion of Richardson's work at school and of some interest for you readers of Fly High!



 
Hogarth was the inventor of the narrative sequence of paintings. Each sequence followed a theme such as the failure of combined marriages or the corruption of political elections, for examples. Hogarth's oil paintings were then engraved and sold as sets of prints, which made them much cheaper and very popular. Hogarth is at once a realistic and comic artist, a satirist.
Let's give a close look at his Marriage à la Mode (fashionable marriage in French) sequence (1743 - 45) . Aren't there many familiar features which a historical fiction lover can immediately recognize and enjoy?

1. The Marriage Settlement


This is the first scene in this series of paintings on the misfortunes of a marriage between people of fashion. The marriage is being arranged in the Earl of Squander's house. The Earl suffers from gout and rests his bandaged foot on a stool. He is receiving the dowry for his son's marriage to a rich merchant's daughter: her money for his old ancestry - he points to the genealogical tree, on the right. The Earl is in debt because of the expenses for the still unfinished Palladian villa seen through the window. The groom, on the left, is dressed as a perfecto fop and has a black patch on his neck (the sign of a venereal disease) . The bride sits with her back to him and looks sad; she's listening to the lawyer Silvertongue, her secret lover.

2. Shortly after the Marriage


From the beginning, the married couple lead separate lives.  The wife lazily stretches herself, having held a late card party the evening before - the cards are still scattered on the floor. The young Viscount is exhausted after a night's dissipation in town. The dog's pulling a woman's cap, obviously not his wife's, from his pocket. The house is in complete disorder; on the left, the steward of the house leaves with unpaid bills: the whole house is going to pieces.

3. The Countess's Morning Levée



Now the Earl of Squander (not a casual name!) is dead and her husband has inherited the title, the wife can receive morning guests. While her valet removes the curl-papers from her hair, she listens to Silvertongue. On the left, a castrato sings accompanied by a flute player, and a young fop with his hair in curl-papers sips his coffee, brought in by a black servant. The room suggests the immoral atmosphere of this society. The black page on the right points grinning at the horns on the statue of Actaeon, suggesting that the husband is a ... cuckhold.

4. The Killing of the Earl



The wife and Silvertongue have been caught by the Earl after slipping away from a masqued ball to a hired room - probably a brothel. The terrified woman, barefoot and in her underwear, kneels before her husband who has been mortally wounded by Silvertongue. The lawyer has thrown his bloody sword onto the floor before escaping through the window, still in his nightshirt. 


5. The Lady's Death


The tragedy is completed in the final picture of the series, where the suicide of the countess is shown. 

1 comment:

alfie said...

Really funny and interesting paintings. It is like a tragic/comic stribe.