When I was introduced to this William Hogarth painting from 1745, the first in a series called Marriage a` la Mode, I didn’t even know where to begin. The medley of Enlightenment colors, objects strewn about, and bourgeoisie people confused me as to what the main point was and where I should start looking to find that point.
Later on, I learned that the painting’s untidiness exemplifies a profound social satire–the clutter not only of material items, but of peoples’ lives. The process of hunting for and studying each item to piece together their “baggage”/underlying flaws, much like a puzzle, is what makes Hogarth’s frilly and seemingly unassuming paintings unique to me.
To put the scene into context, the painting depicts a transaction binding an inconspicuous, middle-class girl and a vain, aristocratic boy in marriage.
Seated on the far right is the boy’s father–the pompous Lord Squanderfield (his name says it all), pointing proudly to his family tree. Since he has literally “squandered” all of his money, all he has to bring to the marriage is his family name. His genealogy indicates that he is a descendent of “William Duke of Normandy,” and that all of his family members are successful aristocrats with the exception of one, who married out of class. The canopy hanging behind him symbolizes his “royalty,” and a pair of canes beside him show he is in need of financial stability.
Another sign of Lord Squanderfield’s lack of money is his half-finished Palladian mansion visible from the window. The Lord’s idle servants, those who are curious, and some who are scornful roam in front of the incomplete structure. With the dowry he is receiving from the transaction, he anticipates resumption of work on the mansion. Evidence of the latter is the architect who stands before the window, studying “A Plan on the New Building of the Right Honble [Honorable].”
Across from the Lord sits the girl’s father. Though he is dressed plainly, he is a careful and parsimonious merchant. The chain on his vest suggests he is also an alderman (a member of an assembly or council). While stiffly sitting at the table, he scrutinizes the “Marriage Settelmt of The Rt. Honble. Lord Viscount Squanderfield.”
Between the two fathers stands an usurer who accepts the Lord’s newly acquired money, while holding several bags and some notes marked 1000 Euros for a “Mortgage.”
In the background, the bride and groom-to-be sit together on a couch. The self-centered beau has turned his back on the girl to admire himself in the mirror. He gazes at himself so narcissistically that he fails to notice anything going on around him. On his neck is a large black dot representing a venereal disease (a pretty bold move made by Hogarth for this time period), or his unfaithfulness to the bride.
Meanwhile, slumped next to the boy is the unsophisticated, simply dressed bride who casually twists and turns her wedding ring. Her face reflects resentment and discontent at the way she is being thought of as an object. So dejected is she, that she pays no attention to the ironically named Councilor Silvertongue, who wears a foolish look of self-approval, affectedly takes snuff while balancing on his tiptoes, and sharpens his pen as he tries to charm her.
The bored and uninterested dogs are symbolic of the couple’s state of mind.
Hanging above everybody’s heads are paintings that foretell a disastrous marriage, and comment on the Lord’s expensive taste for foreign art of questionable worth. A head of Medusa, coincidentally placed above the couple, watches the scene in utter horror; an overbearing portrait of Lord Squanderfield as Jupiter with a thunderbolt in his hand, a comet flashing above him, a cherub blowing his wig in a different direction from his flamboyant clothing, and a cannon exploding in front him, hangs above the usurer; on top of the frame of the Lord’s portrait, a lion seems to grin at the work; on the ceiling is a depiction of Pharoah’s armies in the Red Sea; covering the rest of the walls are pictures of David and Goliath, Judith and Holophernes, the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, Prometheus being tortured by a vulture, the massacre of the innocents, Cain killing Abel, and the martyrdom of St. Lawrence.
Initially, the first painting of Marriage a` la Mode seems busy but straightforward in meaning. On taking a second look, one finds out that this is untrue. Hogarth usually riddles his works with hidden meanings and symbols that could go unnoticed if not keenly sought out. It is this mysterious element of Hogarth’s rococo paintings that make him one of my favorite artists.