William Hogarth, The Marriage à la Mode, plate II

HOGARTH – THE MARRIAGE A LA MODE

PLATE II THE TETE A TETE

 

This plate by William Hogarth belongs to a series of six engravings entitled the Marriage à la Mode and relates the story of the Squanderfield family. The first plate was ominous as the marriage settlement is presented like a financial transaction and neither the future bride nor the bridegroom feel concerned.

This plate, ironically entitled the Tête-à-Tête, foreshadows the failure of the marriage and is far from depicting an intimate breakfast imbued with affection, as the viewer might have expected.

The setting

The scene is set in the double drawing-room of the Squanderfields’ house. The elaborate stucco decoration of the ceiling, the marble columns, the chimney and the carpet bespeak the young people’s wealthy background. Every thing in the interior decoration is meant to impress the guests. Unfortunately the bad taste and showy quality of the ornaments turn this sophistication into ridicule. In the top left hand corner, just behind the Viscount, we can notice a wall-clock indicating that it is past midday. The clock is overwrought and the combination of oriental motifs and animal figures is particularly unpleasant to look at. The figure of the Buddha can also be seen on the mantelpiece of the chimney.  Various unelegant objects have been accumulated after the fashion of the time. The pagoda figures are far from being refined and the pose of the statuettes is anything but coarse and vulgar. Right in the middle an antique marble bust with a broken nose seems to be the pride and joy of the couple. Behind the bust, embedded in an elaborate classical frame, we can make out an oil painting  representing a chubby cherub playing the bagpipe. All these art objects, juxtaposed in a rather queer way, refer to the taste of Hogarth’s contemporaries but are systematically mocked.

The protagonists

The stage-like organisation of the engraving reinforces the narrative quality of the plate. On the left the young man is sprawling wearily on an armchair. He doesn’t seem to have much energy and looks exhausted after a night out. His wig is dishevelled and he looks down as if still engrossed in the adventures of the night. His drooping mouth suggests that he is discontented and blasé too. He is in no state for a conversation. The Visount is elegantly dressed in a tri-corned hat brimmed with lace, a richly decorated frock coat but the restless night gives a slovenly aspect to his appearance.  His shirt is improperly tucked into his trousers and a piece of fabric hangs out of the pocket of his frock coat. The poodle is sniffing at it, which might indicate that the fabric is a woman’s property. Indeed it may belong to his mistress. Moreover a handkerchief is tied around the hilt of the broken sword, it might belong to the same woman. Did the man fight for her ? The fact that the sword is broken may be a clue.

The table with a tea set on it separates the two spouses and still underscores the lack of communication between the two.

The viscountess  is stretching, half awake. She doesn’t seem surprised at her husband’s carelessness. She is holding a pocket mirror in her left hand. She may be dressed in her previous day’s clothes. She has got a cap on her head, a flounced shirt, a bodice and a satin dress. Fashionable shoes tuck out from her dress. Her face shows her laziness and sensuality. Her tip tilted nose, fleshy lips and half-closed eyes as well as her indecent attitude prevent the viewer from considering her as an innocent victim of her husband’s infidelity. As it were, playing cards are scattered on the floor, a book lies half-opend on the carpet, two violins and a musical score can be seen in the bottom right hand corner. The lady must have had a sleepless night too and may have entertained guests. The chair that has toppled over is a sign of disorder. Next to the chair, there is the steward of the house that is about to leave the room. He seems absolutely disgusted and shocked by what he witnesses. He is holding a stack of unpaid bills in his right hand. The coupe must have dilapidated their money and may squander their inheritance on games, women or any fashionable pleasure. The accountant’s stern outfit help us identify him as a Quaker or a godly man. He must have come here to settle accounts, but this is not a priority for the young people.

In the second room a servant or footman, still in his curlers, is stretching and yawning. He is not properly dressed. The disorder of the room reveal that some guests have been entertained. He has had no time to tidy up the room. On the wall three large paintings feature saints. These canvases are largely inappropriate and make clear the hypocrisy of the nobility. Next to these paintings, we can catch glimpse of another frame concealed by a curtain. Is this one a hint at the disreputable behaviour of couple ? Only the foot of a naked woman lying on a divan can be seen. This is once again a criticism of the fake morality of the nobility.

 

In this plate, everything contributes to the general impression of disorder and lack of morality. It is no surprise that the marriage should end in a catastrophe. It goes without saying that Hogarth uses all the details of this engraving to reinforce the inevitability of the crisis. The viewer knows that this marriage is doomed to failure. Besides Hogarth debunks the alleged elegance and respectability of the aristocracy by revealing their disreputable conduct and their lack of moral judgment. Bad taste and the veneration for oriental art are also laughed at. The engraving is a moral satire as well as a dramatized narrative.

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