In 1743–1745 Hogarth painted the six pictures of Marriage à-la-mode (National Gallery, London), a pointed skewering of upper class 18th century society. This moralistic warning shows the miserable tragedy of an ill-considered marriage for money. This is regarded by many as his finest project, certainly the best piece of his serially-planned story cycles.
Marital ethics were the topic of much debate in 18th century Britain. Frequent marriages of convenience and their attendant unhappiness came in for particular criticism, with a variety of authors taking the view that love was a much sounder basis for marriage. Hogarth here painted a satire – a genre that by definition has a moral point to convey – of a conventional marriage within the English upper class. All the paintings were engraved and the series achieved wide circulation in print form. The series, which are set in a Classical interior, shows the story of the fashionable marriage of the son of bankrupt Earl Squanderfield to the daughter of a wealthy but miserly city merchant, starting with the signing of a marriage contract at the Earl's mansion and ending with the murder of the son by his wife's lover and the suicide of the daughter after her lover is hanged at Tyburn for murdering her husband.
William Makepeace Thackeray wrote:
This famous set of pictures 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 for a marriage pending between the daughter of a rich citizen Alderman and young Lord Viscount Squanderfield, the dissipated son of a gouty old Earl ... The dismal end is known. My lord draws upon the counselor, who kills him, and is apprehended while endeavouring to escape. My lady goes back perforce to the Alderman of the City, and faints upon reading Counsellor Silvertongue’s dying speech at Tyburn (place of execution in old London), where the counselor has been executed for sending his lordship out of the world. Moral: don’t listen to evil silver-tongued counselors; don’t marry a man for his rank, or a woman for her money; don’t frequent foolish auctions and masquerade balls unknown to your husband; don’t have wicked companions abroad and neglect your wife, otherwise you will be run through the body, and ruin will ensue, and disgrace, and Tyburn.
The Marriage Settlement
In the first scene the aged Earl (far right) is shown with his family tree and the crutches he needs because of his gout. The new house which he is having built is visible through the window.
The merchant, who is plainly dressed, holds the marriage contract, while his daughter behind him listens to a young lawyer, Silvertongue. The Earl's son, the Viscount, admires his face in a mirror. Two dogs, chained together in the bottom left corner, perhaps symbolise the marriage.
Hogarth's details, especially the paintings on the walls, comment on the action. A grand portrait in the French manner on the rear wall confronts a Medusa head, denoting horror, on the side wall.
The Tête à Tête
In this, the second in the series of paintings, the marriage of the Viscount and the merchant's daughter is quickly proving a disaster. The tired wife, who appears to have given a card party the previous evening, is at breakfast in the couple's expensive house which is now in disorder. The Viscount returns exhausted from a night spent away from home, probably at a brothel: the dog sniffs a lady's cap in his pocket. Their steward, carrying bills and a receipt, leaves the room to the left, his hand raised in despair at the disorder.
The decoration of the room again comments on the action. The picture over the mantlepiece shows Cupid among ruins. In front of it is a bust with a broken nose, symbolising impotence.
The third scene takes place in the room of a French doctor (M. de La Pillule). The Viscount is seated with his child mistress beside him, apparently having contracted venereal disease, as indicated by the black spot on his neck, Hogarth's symbol for those taking the mercurial pills which were the only known treatment for this ailment.
He holds towards the doctor a box of pills; other boxes on the chair and in his mistress's hand suggest he is seeking an alternative remedy. An older woman holds a clasp knife; she appears to be the young girl's mother.
The machines to the right, identified in the inscription on the open book, are for setting a broken shoulder, and drawing corks. A skeleton embraces a model in the cupboard behind the Viscount.
After the death of the old Earl the wife is now the Countess, with a coronet above her bed and over the dressing table, where she sits. She has also become a mother, and a child's teething coral hangs from her chair.
The lawyer Silvertongue invites her to a masquerade like the one to which he points, depicted on the screen. A group of visitors on the left listen to an opera singer, possibly a castrato, accompanied by a flautist.
An African page on the right unpacks a collection of curiosities bought at auction, including a figure of Actaeon. The paintings on the right wall show 'Lot and his Daughters' and 'Jupiter and Io' (after Correggio). On the left wall is a portrait of the lawyer and 'Rape of Ganymede' (after Michelangelo).
This episode takes place in a bagnio, originally a word used to describe coffee houses which offered Turkish baths, but by 1740 it signified a place where rooms could be provided for the night with no questions asked. The Countess and the lawyer have retired there after the masquerade. The young Earl has followed them and is dying from a wound inflicted by Silvertongue, who escapes through the window, while the Countess pleads forgiveness.
The noise of the fight has awakened the master of the house who appears through the door to the right with the Watch. On the rear wall is a tapestry of the 'Judgement of Solomon', and a painting of a courtesan is over the door.
The Lady's Death
The final scene takes place in the house of the Countess's father. She has taken poison on learning that her lover has been hanged for the murder of the Earl, reported in the broadsheet at her feet.
Her crippled child embraces her and her father removes a ring from her finger as a suicide's possessions were forfeit. In the centre an apothecary remonstrates with the servant whom he accuses of obtaining the poison.
Through the window to the right is a view of Old London Bridge. A dog seizes his chance to make off with the frugal meal on the table. The paintings on the wall to the left are Dutch low-life scenes, indicating the taste of the alderman.
And that's the lot...
btw I didn't write any of the text, i can't write but i sure can copy and paste, like i said at the top the opening blurbs are from wikipedia and the painting descriptions are from the national gallery website, I'm hoping they won't mind as it's possibly getting people to go down and see the lot of them... at the national gallery, London (trafalgar square).