For anybody who has just clicked on to this page, be warned, we are now almost half way through William Hogarth’s pictorial saga entitled Marriage à la Mode and I suggest you click on to the May 4th blog which is the starting point to this cycle of paintings. This is painting number three in the cycle and is entitled The Inspection. In My Daily Art Display on the two previous days we looked at the coming together of the young couple and then the onset of the deterioration of the relationship. Today things take a turn for the worse in the marriage saga.
Today, the setting for the painting is not the Viscount and Viscountess’s house but the consulting rooms of the French doctor, M. De LaPillule. In the surgery we see the doctor to the left, the Viscount, with his young mistress, who stands on his left hand side and in the centre a rather large woman in a voluminous maroon hooped dress. There is no sign of the Viscountess and as the story unfolds you will know the reason for her absence.
In the two previous paintings in the cycle we have noted that the Viscount has a black patch on his neck, a way Hogarth signified that the Viscount has contracted the sexually transmitted disease, syphilis. It is for that very reason that he now appears at the doctor’s surgery. The Viscounts voracious sexual appetite has been the undoing of him and now he is paying the penalty for his many indiscretions and sexual liaisons. He, however, seems unabashed by his predicament. In fact he seems quite good humoured, which is in stark contrast to the worried look on the face of his very young mistress. She is but a mere child. They have come to the doctor for a cure for his ailment. He had originally been prescribed mercury tablets, which at the time were the only known cure for the disease, but they have had not achieved the desired effect so we can see the Viscount handing back the pill to the doctor and asking for an alternative medication. I say “asking” but we see that in his left hand he is brandishing a cane. Is this a threatening move on his part towards the doctor? Is it his belief that his confrontational action will get him a more potent and successful remedy?
I am not sure how much faith I would have in a doctor who looks like the one in the painting. He looks unclean and unshaven and is dressed in shabby brown clothes. Maybe he is what was termed a “back-street” doctor. Maybe the Viscount dare not go to his regular physician in case his plight became known to his social circle. The surgery, like the doctor, is dirty and full of masks and bones and on the table next to Doctor La Pillule is a skull. In the cupboard at the rear of the painting we see a skeleton which almost appears to be groping the genitals of a musculature model or is it an embalmed body !!!! If we look to the side of the cabinet we can see a narwal tusk which is a classic phallic symbol. On the cabinet we observe a plethora of pill boxes, a scalloped-sided bleeding basin, a glass urinal, a giant plaster head with a huge femur behind, an alchemist’s tripod for holding flasks over burners, a broken mediaeval comb, a tall red Jacobean hat, two mismatched mediaeval shoes, a spur buckler and a sword and shield, all of which are covered in dust. So what does this tell us about the doctor and his practice? Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, the German scientist and artist wrote in his book entitled Hogarth on High Life. The Marriage à la Mode Series,
“…The Doctor’s collection, commenting as it does both historically and prophetically on his career, might be interpreted as follows: he began as a beard trimmer; graduated to piss-analyst; barely skirting the gallows (by virtue of his curative powers) he grabbed for himself a doctor’s hat; and is now counting on a knighthood, if he has not one already…”
Hardly a resounding recommendation on the good doctor’s ability to cure the Viscount and his mistresses.
The large irate lady at the centre of the painting, which we are presuming is the young mistress’s mother, has similar black patches on her face and we can only surmise that she too is suffering from syphilis. It is thus a matter of conjecture as to whether the lady is purely the mother of the Viscount’s young mistress or is she the mistress as well, as the Viscount seems to be very relaxed in her company and not fearful of the consequences of having given her young daughter a sexually transmitted disease. Also, if she was the child’s mother would she and the child be standing together? Maybe they are not related and they are just two females of vastly different ages plying the same trade. I am not sure whether, if I was the Earl, I would be feeling relaxed as him, especially as in her hand we see her opening up a clasp knife as she stares down malevolently at him.
We look at the young girl. She is but a child. She looks worried and sad knowing what has befallen her. It is a pathetic sight. For a supposed mistress she seems so young, too demure, too prim and proper but we see her dabbing a sore on her mouth with a handkerchief and this is probably the early signs of the onset of syphilis. In her other hand is a pill box. Maybe she too is seeking an alternative remedy to her illness.
That’s the end of Episode Three of Marriage à la Mode. Tomorrow we will take a look at the next part of the Hogarth’s saga, entitled The Toilette.