In 1731, William Hogarth (British, 1697-1764) created a new form of art, one he called “modern moral subjects.” He began telling stories of contemporary life, through a series of “scenes” that could be engraved and sold to the general public. Hogarth’s approach was not to preach virtue, but instead to satirize vice and folly. This approach was so effective that it earned him the title of “Comic History Painter” from his friend Henry Fielding.
Marriage A-la-Mode or A Variety of Modern Occurrences in High Life was by far Hogarth’s most popular and enduring of these “moral” series. Painted mainly in 1743 and published in 1745, it contains all the elements that make Hogarth a master satirist. Not only is the series a keenly observed and savage caricature of the aspirations and foibles of the upper classes, it also contains clever allusions to proverbs and slang of the day, as well as innumerable background details that contribute to the meaning of each scene.
The story is not a pretty one. It begins with a marriage arranged by two self-seeking fathers: one, a rich Alderman of the City of London who craves social status and buys it by marrying off his helpless daughter; and the other, the Earl of Squander – a spendthrift nobleman who desperately needs cash and acquires it by marrying off his foppish and unprincipled son. There is never any question of love or even compatibility. Flush with money but no moral grounding, the married couple soon strays into foolish diversions and adultery – and then subsequently to venereal disease, murder and suicide.
Hogarth hired three highly skilled French engravers working in London to produce the series: Bernard Baron (plates II and III), Gérard Jean-Baptiste Scotin (plates I and VI) and Simon-François Ravenet (plates IV and V). As these were reproductive engravings copied directly from the original works, the printings are in reverse of the paintings. The original paintings can be found today in the National Gallery of Art, London.
written by Lauren Rabb
William Hogarth is most famous for his paintings on ‘modern moral subjects’, but it was the engravings of these images that gained him fame, as he could reach more people through the reproducible print. His ‘take no prisoners’ approach held up a moralizing mirror to eighteenth century Britain where no social group or class was safe from his witty critique. His paintings and prints reveal that popular culture displays of hedonism are far from being a twentieth century invention.
Hogarth’s work was so popular that his work was plagiarized constantly,. Booksellers openly made cheap copies to sell and returned his originals unsold. This prompted him to lobby for the Copyright Act of 1735 as protection for writers and artists, which when passed was referred to as the “Hogarth Act”.
His work was really not that new in the context of moralizing tales and satire. Contemporary eighteenth century book shops were full of these types of tales. Jonathan Swift, had written his famous satire, Gulliver’s Travels in 1726, almost twenty years prior to Hogarth’s Marriage a-la Mode series. What was made Hogarth’s work so popular was that his story was told visually, through pictures that referenced his viewer’s familiar popular visual culture. His form was so original that a new name was used to describe them- cartoon. Hogarth is often described as the father of the modern editorial cartoon.
Smithsonian Libraries (n.d.) Artist biography. Retrieved from http://www.sil.si.edu/ondisplay/caricatures/bio_hogarth.html
Analyze each work from Hogarth’s series as a whole class or in small groups. Small groups can report back their findings to the class.
Contemporary editorial cartoons also communicate social and political messages through visuals. Today’s cartoons use the following persuasive techniques to argue their points. Use these to analyze a contemporary editorial cartoon.
Compare the persuasive techniques used today to Hogarth’s series from the 1800’s. Are there similarities, differences? Compare the messages being argued? Are the issues that Hogarth criticizes still relevant today?
Extension- Choose an issue to make a persuasive editorial cartoon about (racism, school funding, environment, etc). Create a cartoon using the above persuasive techniques to communicate your idea.
The Library of Congress website- Interactive presentation on how to analyze editorial cartoons. Also a resource of cartoons from history covering major social/political issues:
The stage is set and the players have all revealed their true characters by the time the viewer has analyzed this first scene. On the left, we see the groom’s father, Lord Squander. He points to his dubious-looking family tree while his coronet – the symbol of his rank – is conspicuously displayed all over the room. Through the window we see a tasteless but grandiose new home under construction, but with the workers sitting idle. Work has stopped due to lack of funds.
The bride’s father, an Alderman with plenty of money but no title, closely examines the marriage contract. A pile of money already sits on the table and the Alderman’s clerk hands the Earl his redeemed mortgage. When the contract is signed, the Alderman’s daughter will instantly acquire rank and distinction that will, of course, reflect well on him.
The groom, dressed in the latest French fashion, takes a pinch of snuff and admires himself in the mirror. He ignores his bride-to-be. The daughter looks perfectly miserable and allows herself to be sweet-talked by a lawyer named Silvertongue. His name is a play on the proverb, “A man that hath no money in his purse must have silver in his tongue.” The two dogs collared together at the Viscount’s feet obviously reference the marriage, but are also a play on the current slang saying that persons chained together in order to be conveyed to jail are “married.”
Everyone in the room seems ignorant of the black spot on the Viscount’s neck. This is Hogarth’s reference to the black mercurial pills that at the time were the only known treatment for venereal disease. This spot will continue to be the groom’s most conspicuous feature, and sets the stage for the tragedy to come.
The newlyweds lounge in the double-drawing room of their new home (the one previously seen through the window) after a night of parties, which they attended separately. An exasperated steward holds a pile of bills that the couple is uninterested in paying, although the rather vulgar objets d’art, paintings and collectibles in the room indicate a well-financed household.
The bride looks remarkably self-satisfied and quite comfortable in her new clothes and new position as Viscountess. Her posture indicates that she might be pregnant – but the identity of the father is brought into question by the carved face of a man watching her on the chimneypiece. The overturned chair and the open fiddle case on top of it are also references to sexual indiscretion.
A night of debauchery and amusement has left the groom exhausted. His sword lies broken from an unknown encounter, but wrapped around it is a girl’s cap. Another cap, poking out of his coat pocket and detected by the poodle, is presumably from another female. The ribbon around it indicates virginity.
The Viscount and his young mistress, who dons a cap much like the one that protruded from the Viscount’s coat in the previous scene, are paying a visit to a quack doctor in order to exchange medicine previously purchased for venereal disease (note the conspicuous location of one of the pill boxes between the groom’s legs). The flawed skull denotes that this doctor specializes in curing “the pox.” However, the doctor’s body – the sunken nose, bulging forehead, thick lips, and bowed legs – indicates that he himself has an advanced form of syphilis.
The furious woman in the scene has a tattoo of the letters “FC” on her breast – a branding inflicted on convicted prostitutes. She seems to be upset that one of her “girls” has developed venereal disease, but closer reading shows that she is probably the girl’s mother. The fabric on the woman’s sleeves is the same as the fabric of the girl’s skirt – a relationship that would never have been accidental in a Hogarth painting. By ranting and raving about her daughter’s spoiled innocence, she is likely to attain a large sum of damages.
Time has progressed, the old Earl has died and the Viscount and his wife are now Earl and Countess Squanderfield (note the coronet above her vanity mirror). They also have a child, as a rattle can be seen hanging off the back of the Countess’ chair. The Countess is conducting her toilette in a “charming” state of déshabille that implies she is so sought after that she has to socialize while she finishes dressing. Silvertongue, now openly admitted to the house and comfortable enough to lounge with his feet on the sofa, holds an invitation and points to a painting of a masquerade, where presumably the lovers will rendezvous later. The painting above the Countess is that of Jupiter and Io, representing their affair in allegory. Below them, a young black page plays with a horned figure of Actaeon – horns being the classic symbol of cuckoldry.
Meanwhile, the other guests listen to a recital by an Italian singer whose elaborate wig, ringed fingers, and fancy earrings indicate that he is a castrato, another very fashionable “accoutrement” to upper class entertainments.
A bagnio is a hotel that rents rooms by the hour. The Countess and Silvertongue retired there after the masquerade (discarded masks and costumes litter the floor), and the Earl discovered them. (Did he follow them from the masquerade, or did he happen to have an assignation at the same hotel?)
The lawyer has fatally stabbed the young man, and as he begins to buckle under his own weight, the Countess pleads for forgiveness, but the pose is deliberately theatrical and puts her sincerity into question. The owner of the hotel has summoned a night watchman and constable, who enter the room just as Silvertongue – in his nightshirt – attempts to flee through the window.
The final scene of this narrative takes place in the Alderman’s house, after the burial of the Countess’ husband and the trial of her lover. The Countess has poisoned herself and has only moments to live. The letter that lies on the floor is that of Silvertongue’s dying speech (condemned men were encouraged to repent before being hanged). The fact that the bottle of poison and the letter are next to each other indicates that the Countess committed suicide not because of her husband’s murder, but her lover’s death. In the corner, the apothecary berates a dim-witted servant for his role in the suicide.
The Countess’ child is held up to kiss her, and we see his black-spotted cheek and crippled legs, telling us that he is the innocent victim of his parents’ vices. The Alderman, still mainly concerned with money, removes his daughter’s ring. The malnourished dog stealing food from the table, as well as the presence of the ledgers in the cupboard, indicate that the father hoards his money to the detriment of everyone around him. The child will probably not survive long in this environment.
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