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Art / Marriage A-la-Mode

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The first painting, The Marriage Settlement. The "happy" couple are on the far left.

Marriage A-la-Mode is a series of paintings by the English artist William Hogarth, originally painted from 1743-45. In the paintings, Hogarth skewered the idea that the wealthy lived virtuous lives by depicting a disastrous Arranged Marriage between the son of the bankrupt Earl of Squanderfield and the daughter of a rich but corrupt merchant and city alderman. There are six paintings in all (titles as given on the frames):

  1. The Marriage Settlement
  2. The Tête à Tête
  3. The Inspection
  4. The Toilette
  5. The Bagnio
  6. The Lady's Death

From the very start, the engaged couple couldn't be less interested in each other, and are soon both embarking on affairs while frittering away their finances and neglecting the daughter they have together, problems that are only exacerbated by the death of the old Earl and the passing of his title on to his son. The Countess, in particular, has an affair with Silvertongue, one of the lawyers who draws up the marriage contract, and when the young Earl discovers them in bed together, he challenges Silvertongue to a duel. Unfortunately, he is a poor swordsman and is fatally wounded, and when Silvertongue is arrested and hanged for the Earl's murder, the Countess poisons herself.

The paintings are owned by the British government and are displayed in the National Gallery in London. As with most of Hogarth's work, the paintings were at least partly intended to serve as the models for engraved copper plates from which prints could be produced for mass distribution (Hogarth firmly believed that art should not be accessible only to the upper classes); the resulting prints are horizontally reflected relative to the paintings.

These paintings contain examples of the following tropes:

  • Amoral Attorney: In The Marriage Settlement, Silvertongue, one of the legal counsellors drawing up the paperwork for the marriage contract, shows as much regard for the sanctity of marriage as the simultaneously engaged and unengaged couple. As he sharpens his quill, he begins romancing the bride-to-be, clearly sensing that he could be on to a good thing by getting into the bed of a rich yet unhappily married woman and thus living a life of luxury at her and especially her husband's expense. (She, meanwhile, is happy to have a sexual partner who is not a vain, syphilitic fop.)
  • Anti-Role Model: The series as a whole is a critique of upper-class people who marry for money. The many petty conflicts and irresponsible behaviors the Countess and the Earl engage in—specifically, the former's adultery and the latter's recklessly challenging someone to a duel—culminate in the Earl being murdered and the Countess killing herself.
  • Apothecary Alligator: Among the many oddities crammed into Monsieur de la Pillule's office in The Inspection is the obligatory stuffed alligator hanging from the ceiling... with an incongruous ostrich egg suspended from its stomach, which deliberately makes no sense in context to emphasise that the doctor is an unqualified charlatan.
  • Arranged Marriage: The focus of the paintings is the folly of arranging marriages for financial or social gain. Viscount Squanderfield and the alderman's daughter are completely uninterested in each other, but because the Earl needs the money and the idea of rubbing elbows with the aristocracy appeals to the alderman's vanity, their children are forced into marriage with each other.
  • Author Tract: As with most of his satirical paintings, Hogarth fills every square inch of his canvas with details that in some way reflect his aesthetic and personal philosophies. As well as the attack on Arranged Marriage that dominates the series, Hogarth also took aim at artistic and architectural styles he found repugnant. For example, in The Marriage Settlement the Viscount's effeminate foppishness is emphasised by the black bow on his wig and the raised red heels on his shoes, high fashion in the courts of Paris and thus detested by the French-hating Hogarth. Meanwhile, the Earl's opulent new house seen through the window is a hideous parody of the neo-Palladian style (the two colonnades feature different numbers and styles of columns, while the basement windows are triangular and the coach house door is barely tall enough to accommodate a coach, never mind a coachman), which Hogarth despised.
  • Awful Wedded Life: The Marriage Settlement sets the tone for the Viscount's marriage to the alderman's daughter; they aren't even looking at each other (the Viscount is gazing adoringly at his own reflection while the bored alderman's daughter is having her attentions courted by Silvertongue), and the two dogs chained together in the lower left represent the misery their marriage will bring both of them. They both have adulterous affairs, spend money irresponsibly on gambling and garishly ugly home decoration, and are generally completely miserable with each other.
  • Back-Alley Doctor: The Inspection sees the Viscount paying a visit to Monsieur de la Pillule, a French doctor, to discuss the case of a young girl whom he has infected with syphilis. Hogarth thought all French doctors were quacks, and de la Pillule is no exception; the narwhal tusk and comb on his wall suggest that, like many disreputable doctors of the 1700s, he trained as a barber rather than a doctor, and the gallows-shaped tripod on the top of his cabinet implies that he has had brushes with the law. This has not stopped him from inventing mechanical contraptions that look more likely to kill patients than heal them, as evidenced by the device intended to re-set dislocated shoulders on the right of the painting (the other is used as a corkscrew). The Viscount presumably values discretion over qualifications when it comes to seeking treatment for venereal disease.
  • Blue Blood: As seen in The Marriage Settlement, the old Earl is very proud of his lineage, to the point of putting coronets on everything from the crutches necessitated by his gout to one of the two dogs who are chained together. He is pointing proudly to his family tree, which literally sprouts from William the Conqueror.note  The possibility of marrying into a very remote branch of the Royal family is part of the appeal of the contract to the alderman. Neither he nor the Earl notice the severed branch with a royal coronet on just one of the two circles, representing a similarly doomed cross-class marriage higher up the family tree.
  • Cuckold Horns: In The Toilette, a young page boy cheekily points at the horns on a statue of Actaeon, implying he knows that Silvertongue is sleeping with the Countess behind her husband's back.
  • Downer Ending: As of the last painting, the Earl has been killed in a duel, Silvertongue has been hanged for his murder, and the Countess has committed suicide. The title cannot pass to their now orphaned daughter, and the circumstances of her parents' deaths also mean she cannot inherit what remains of their money; she has, however, inherited her father's case of syphilis (the braces on her legs also indicate a case of rickets), so she'll be lucky if she lives long enough to have children of her own (who will also have syphilis).
  • Driven to Suicide: In The Lady's Death, already ashamed of having brought about her husband's death in a duel, the Countess is completely broken by the news that Silvertongue has been hanged at Tyburn for the crime. She poisons herself with laudanum which she has bribed a dim-witted manservant (the man in the loose-fitting, incorrectly-buttoned coat) to buy for her. Since this makes what remains of the Earl's money forfeit to the state, the only money her father can get back from her dowry is from selling her wedding ring, which he is busy removing.
  • Duel to the Death: Despite being weak and sickly, the Viscount - later Earl - is prone to getting in swordfights on matters of honour (in The Tête à Tête, his sword lies broken at his feet after he returns home from a night of carousing). When he finds his wife in bed with Silvertongue at the Turk's Head (a real bagnio near Covent Garden), he challenges him to a duel, and in The Bagnio we see the aftermath of the duel; the positions of the characters suggest that, as well as being a poor swordsman to begin with, the Earl had the light from the fire in his eyes, allowing Silvertongue to run him through twice (meanwhile, the Earl's completely clean sword indicates that he didn't so much as scratch Silvertongue). As the noise has caused the landlord of the Turk's Head to summon the night watch, Silvertongue flees through the window as the fatally wounded Earl sinks to the floor while his wife begs his forgiveness.
  • Generational Trauma: The paintings criticize the then tendency of the upper class to marry out of financial interest and not out of love, and how this negatively impacts everyone involved. The Earl of Squanderfield has been unwise with his family fortune, so he betroths his son to the daughter of a rich, corrupt merchant. It's implied that the son looks down on his fiancée, which combined with the hedonistic lifestyle he learned from his father —hence, the bankruptcy— leads to him frequenting brothels and contracting syphilis. Likewise, the merchant's daughter shares her father's lack of scruples. Seeing the sorry state her husband is in, she decides to engage in a more sexually rewarding extramarital affair with an Amoral Attorney. Consequently, both spouses neglect their daughter, leaving her to be raised by their servants. In the end, it all ends in tragedy, as their mutual unfaithfulness causes them to orphan the little girl, who herself inherited her father's syphilis, implying that the cycle will continue again in a more destructive form.
  • Hypocrite: The Viscount (later Earl) carries on numerous affairs before and during his marriage, but when he finds out his wife is also having an affair with Silvertongue, he flies into a rage and challenges the man to a duel (which he loses).
  • Impoverished Patrician: The Earl of Squanderfield may be the head of an aristocratic family, but he has fallen on hard times financially (interpreted by some commentators to be a result of the architectural atrocity seen through the window in The Marriage Settlement, on which work has ground to a halt), which is why he is arranging the marriage of his son to the daughter of a wealthy alderman.
  • The Loins Sleep Tonight: One interpretation of the Viscount's broken sword in The Tête à Tête is as a symbol of sexual impotence; while the lace nightcap being sniffed by one of the family dogs indicates that he has just returned from a brothel, it appears he was unable to perform, probably as a result of his case of syphilis. (The damp patch on the front of his wife's skirt and her contented expression suggest that her own extramarital tryst had a more satisfactory ending.)
  • Meaningful Name:
    • The old Earl of Squanderfield has done exactly that with his family fortune. Even before he dies, his son and daughter-in-law are living up to the family name with chronic financial irresponsibility; the Viscount gambles and spends money on women, while the Viscountess buys a wide assortment of truly ugly ornaments.
    • The lawyer drawing up the paperwork for the marriage who has a long-term affair with the bride is seen in The Marriage Settlement whispering into her ear, his words evidently having a powerful enough effect to attract and keep her attention until their deaths. Silvertongue by name, silver tongue by nature.
    • The French barber-surgeon whom the Viscount visits in The Inspection is identified on the documents next to the mechanical contraptions he has invented as Monsieur de la Pillule, which approximately translates as "Mr. Pill". Aptly, he is treating the Viscount and one or both of the ladies for syphilis with mercury pills (the standard treatment for the disease in the 18th century).
  • My God, What Have I Done?:
    • In The Bagnio, the Countess is on her knees next to her dying husband, begging his forgiveness with tears in her eyes for the adulterous affair that has led to his death. The fact that the bed is unmade, the clothes and masks from the masquerade are on the floor, and the door lock has been broken make it clear that the Earl surprised his wife and Silvertongue in flagrante delicto while Silvertongue's genitals are just visible as he flees through the window, all contributing to a sense of the Countess' pleas for forgiveness being intended to assuage her conscience rather than motivated by genuine remorse.
    • But with the blood of two men on her hands, the Countess commits suicide in The Lady's Death, and now it is the dull-witted manservant who wears an expression of horror at the results of his actions, having been the one who bought the fatal dose of laudanum at his mistress' request.
  • Neutral Female: Justified; the Countess doesn't interfere with the Duel to the Death between Silvertongue and the Earl because she cheated on one with the other. With everyone involved guilty of adultery, the Countess simply doesn't have any side to choose from, including her own.
  • Nobility Marries Money: The groom's family are bankrupt aristocrats, while the bride's family are wealthy but earned their money instead of inheriting it.
  • Nouveau Riche: The alderman made his fortune as a merchant rather than inheriting it. However, though rich, he is sloppy and ill-mannered, as seen by his lackadaisical posture in The Marriage Settlement, and Hogarth gave him tastes in art that he personally loathed, such as the Dutch genre paintings including a man urinating, a woman lighting a pipe from a drunk man's red nose, and a sink full of dirty dishes that adorn the wall in The Lady's Death. His daughter shares his appalling taste in home decoration, as seen by the dreadful array of ornaments crowding the mantelpiece (especially the mock Roman bust in the centre; the head is clearly not original to the stand, and the nose has been carelessly repaired or replaced) and the clock in a misconceived mishmash of Chinoiserie and Rococo styles with a cat, two fish, and a Buddha in a tree in The Tête à Tête, and the absurd parade of equally ugly souvenirs (accompanied by a book identifying them as having been purchased at the estate sale of the late Sir Timothy Babyhouse) in The Toilette.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: In The Lady's Death, the alderman is still alive after his daughter has been Driven to Suicide, although he seems more interested in recovering what he can of the dowry by removing and selling her wedding ring than he does in mourning the fact that he has outlived his child.
  • Pose of Silence: In The Marriage Settlement, the soon-to-be-married couple is sitting on the same, rather small couch on the far left. The bride is sighing unhappily as she is courted by an Amoral Attorney. Both are leaning toward each other while the groom has his back turned to the bride and is vainly admiring his reflection in the mirror.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: After "winning" the Duel to the Death against the Earl (who instigated it), Silvertongue is tried and executed for murder.
  • Quack Doctor: Monsieur de la Pillule, the doctor visited by the Earl in the third picture of the series, is heavily implied to be a charlatan: several of the articles in his room (such as a crocodile with an ostrich egg hanging from it) are assembled without any sense or order, a narwhal tusk and a comb suggest that he started as a barber rather than a medic, and an image of the gallows tree is viewed as an implication that his "healing" almost got him hanged.
  • Rich in Dollars, Poor in Sense:
    • The old Earl's problem with this is the reason he has had to marry off his son to the daughter of the Nouveau Riche alderman. He had money once, but he has spent it on a sumptuous and, by all appearances, unnecessary new house that violates every common sense principle of architecture imaginable, and in The Marriage Settlement, the workmen can be seen lounging about in front of the house, waiting for the money to start flowing again before they will pick up their tools.
    • The Viscount and Viscountess fail spectacularly to learn from the old Earl's mistakes; no sooner have they married and gained access to the substantial dowry that the alderman put up than the Viscountess is buying an endless parade of kitschy decorations that ensure the house is just as much of an assault on aesthetics inside as outside, while the Viscount spends irresponsibly during trips to gambling dens and brothels.
  • Rouge Angles of Satin:
    • In The Toilette, the notes on the floor (written on the backs of playing cards, a common practice among 18th-century aristocrats) next to the castrato singer include a sterling piece of evidence of just how poorly educated most of the aristocracy were. The card in question reads, "Count Basset begs to no how Lade Squander sleapt last nite."note 
    • Mr. de la Pilule's treaty was approved by the "Académie Royal" and not "Académie Royale".
  • Rule of Symbolism: Look at any detail in any one of the six paintings and it probably symbolises something about either the characters, their situation, or Hogarth's personal beliefs. Just to give a few examples:
    • Hogarth routinely used overturned furniture to symbolise disagreement or disharmony, and three paintings in the series feature examples of this. In The Tête à Tête, a chair lies on its back to emphasise the newlyweds' lack of interest in each other or in their finances (a steward leaves with an expression of disgust and a stack of bills, only one of which has been paid). In The Bagnio, a table has been knocked over during the duel that has left the Earl mortally wounded and Silvertongue fleeing for his life. And in The Lady's Death, one of the chairs at the table has fallen over backwards in the aftermath of the Countess' suicide.
    • In The Marriage Settlement, there are two candlesticks below a sculpture of a Gorgon's face twisted around each other, but the candles are unlit, while the two dogs in the lower left are chained together, and look thoroughly miserable. Below the candles and above the dogs we see the Viscount and the alderman's daughter, with nary a flicker of affection or passion between them.
    • The art gallery on the old Earl's walls in The Marriage Settlement is a parade of foreshadowing of disaster, every one depicting Biblical or mythological violence. Among them are David killing Goliath, Cain killing Abel, St. Lawrence's martyrdom, St. Sebastian's martyrdom, the Massacre of the Innocents, Judith's decapitation of Holofernes, Prometheus being attacked by a vulture, and the Red Sea engulfing the Pharaoh's armies.
    • The Toilette features paintings of Lot and his daughters, Jupiter and Io, and the abduction of Ganymede — all stories about seduction of a rather sordid sort — while a chuckling African page boy holding a statue of Actaeon points to its horns, a symbol of cuckoldry; meanwhile, Silvertongue lives up to his name as the Countess hangs on his every word.
  • The Scrooge: The Lady's Death reveals that for all the money his family brought to the marriage, the alderman lives a very frugal existence, though this may also be a result of his daughter having spent and/or lost access to the money from her dowry after the Earl's murder. His house is in an unfashionable part of London Bridge (the houses seen through the window look to be one stiff breeze from falling over into the Thames), his furniture is shabby, he eats pig's head, and his dog is desperately underfed. He seems more interested in getting the Countess' wedding ring off her finger before rigor mortis sets in so that he can sell it than in the fact that his daughter has just poisoned herself.
  • Sequential Art: It's a collection of six paintings that tell the story of how a loveless, arranged marriage culminates in tragedy. The titles of the paintings provide some extra information as well.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The castrato singer in The Toilette is believed to be either Giovanni Carestini or Farinelli, both regulars in the operas of Hogarth's good friend George Frederic Handel, while the flautist is believed to be either Karl Friedrich Wiedemann (music teacher to the future King George III) or King Frederick II of Prussia. (However, as Hogarth never mastered flattery in portraiture, their physical appearances suggest that the music the duo are performing is as horrible as the Countess' taste in art!)
    • Among the Countess' guests in The Toilette, the woman in the white dress leaning appreciatively toward the two musicians is Mrs. Elizabeth Fox Lane, later Lady Bingley after the death of her husband. Said husband is also one of the guests at the Countess' levée; he is the man in the background with the riding crop who has dozed off (being far more interested in fox hunting than music).
  • Stealth Insult: This is one interpretation of the portrait of the old Earl hanging on the wall in The Marriage Settlement, a portrait packed with incongruities. The Earl is portrayed as a young Jupiter, the god of oaths and treaties, and yet is surrounded by symbols of warfare. He holds symbols of paganism and Christianity in either hand, wears the sash of the French Order of the Holy Spirit and the neck ribbon of the Spanish Order of the Golden Fleece (neither of which, at the time, had ever been awarded to an Englishmannote ), and sits on a cannon firing grapeshot, while the wind is somehow blowing his clothes and his hair in opposite directions. If the artist knew what he was doing, then he correctly assumed that the Earl's ignorance and vanity would prevent him from seeing past his depiction as Jupiter and thus noticing how ridiculous the portrait really is.
  • Take That!: Monsieur de la Pillule, the French quack barber-surgeon whom the Viscount visits in The Inspection to discuss the case of syphilis for which the young girl he has brought along is being treated, is a dual attack on contemporary doctor Richard Rock and Hogarth's perception that French medical knowledge left a lot to be desired.note  The bizarre contraptions on the right-hand side of the painting are M. de la Pillule's own inventions and are intended to re-set dislocated shoulders and remove corks from wine bottles, and the documents next to them identify them as having been inspected and approved by the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris.
  • Terminally-Ill Criminal: Implied. The young Earl's excesses have led him to contract syphilis and carry out an unfulfilling sex life. As a consequence, when he discovers his (married for convenience) wife having an extramarital affair with Silvertongue, he has no problems challenging the lawyer to a Duel to the Death. At the time, this practice is already illegal so the Earl is prepared to either die at the hands of Silvertongue or to kill him and then die by execution — the then punishment for murder.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Both the old Earl and his son embody everything Hogarth found objectionable about the English aristocracy.
    • The old Earl is proud of his documented descent from William the Conqueror, but he is terrible with money; the bandage on his foot and the pair of crutches indicate a case of gout caused by overindulgence in rich food and drink, and he has built a lavish yet badly-designed house that has emptied the family treasury, requiring his son to be married off to a Nouveau Riche alderman's daughter.
    • The Viscount is no better, being a stupid fop who dresses in the French fashions Hogarth loathed and is more interested in his own reflection than in his fiancée, while his conspicuous beauty mark and spindly legs indicate a case of venereal disease that will likely speed him into an early grave - if his hot-headed penchant for duelling doesn't get him there first. Small wonder the alderman's daughter looks so unenthusiastic about marrying him.