We have finally arrived at the final chapter of this set of six satirical paintings by the English artist, William Hogarth, entitled Marriage à la Mode. This final canvas in this moral drama is entitled The Lady’s Death and this of course gives away the final twist in the pictorial story. When I gave you the first of the six paintings on May 4th I had intended it has a “one-off” in case you got bored if I had gone through all six of the paintings. However, I became so fascinated by them I thought that my fascination would be transferred to you and so for the last six days we have followed the life of the Earl and Countess of Squander through the eyes of Hogarth. Sit back and enjoy the dénouement. For those of you who have not seen the earlier paintings in my blogs I suggest you head back to My Daily Art Display of May 4th where the story starts.
Yesterday in My Daily Art Display we witnessed the scene at the bagnio, the death of the Earl at the hands of his wife’s lover, Silvertongue, the family lawyer. Now we are transported to the home of the Countess’ father the rich merchant who had arranged his daughter’s marriage to the Earl, paid a sizeable sum of money to the groom’s father and in return, achieved entry in to the world of nobility. The decor of the room is not like anything we saw earlier in the house of the young noble couple. This has a bareness and frugality to it. There is no sign of aristocratic profligacy we had seen in the earlier paintings. The floors are bare. This is not because of the owner’s lack of wealth but more to do with his business-like bourgeois miserliness. Unlike his daughter and his son-in-law, he was careful with his money.
So let us look carefully at this final scene. In a chair we see the tragic figure of the dying countess. She has been informed that her lover, Silvertongue, the family lawyer, has been hanged at Tyburn for killing her husband. She is wracked with guilt and inconsolable and has taken an overdose of poison. Hogarth has piled on more tragedy by showing the nursemaid bringing the Countess’ child to the dying woman for one last cuddle. The nursemaid is wracked with grief, tears streaming down her cheeks. Sadly, it should be noted that this maid’s expression of grief is the only one we can see on the faces of the people in the room. The small child puts her lips to her mother’s face to give her one final kiss. Once again Hogarth has signified, by painting a black spot on the child’s cheek that the child is suffering from syphilis, almost certainly passed on by the father who we knew was suffering from that sexually-transmitted disease. It probably also means that the future health of the child looks extremely bleak. If that was not bad enough, we can see the poor young thing has legs strapped in callipers, possibly caused by rickets…
We see the father of the countess standing next to the chair his daughter in which she is lying slumped. He has hold of her right hand. Is this a touch of tenderness from the heart-broken father? I fancy not as we can see his sole intention seems to be to remove the gold wedding ring from his daughter’s finger before rigor mortis sets in. He is aware that this sordid episode will prove financially disastrous to him as in cases of suicide the property and possessions of his daughter will revert to the State, which of course means he will lose the considerable dowry he put up as part of the marriage contract. His best-laid plans have fallen asunder. Do I hear a cheer of delight from my readers?
To the right of the dying woman we see the apothecary reproaching the foolish servant for allowing this all to happen, for it was the servant, who had been persuaded by his mistress to go out and procure some laudanum from the apothecary. Now the apothecary will be blamed and his rage at the servant is probably to deflect such onus of blame from himself for allowing the poison to enter the household. The empty bottle lies on the floor by the feet of the countess with the label “Laudanum” still attached. Next to the empty vial we see a handbill reporting the notice of execution at Tyburn of Silvertongue and recording the dying words of the convicted murderer. It is probably these tragic last words of her lover that tipped the countess into a suicidal depression.
Let us now look at some of the minor details of the painting that Hogarth has tantalised us with. Through the open door from which the doctor is leaving we see a row of leathern buckets hanging on the wall. These were the normal accoutrements of a merchant’s house and were, before a fire engines came into being, in case of fire. Once again we see an overturned chair, this time by the table. Hogarth used this to symbolise disagreement and conflict. On the table, we see a pig’s head, which presumably was to be part of a meal, being dragged off by an emaciated-looking dog. This sort of unappetising meal woulds probably cost little and is a direct reference to the frugality of life in the miserly merchant’s abode.
The paintings on the wall are Dutch genre showing satirically the life of the common people. In one, we can just make out a woman lighting her pipe using the heat from a drunken man’s nose. In another, a still-life, we see a pile of dirty dishes lying untouched in a sink and in another we are presented with a drunken man urinating against a wall.
The window to the right of the painting bears the St George’s Cross, the City of London coat of arms. In the upper right quadrant we see an upturned sword which is indicates that this house is situated north of the Thames. Looking out of the open window we can see the old London Bridge with all its old dilapidated houses built along its entire length. Art historians tell us that this view was one Hogarth would have witnessed from a window in his uncle’s house.
So that is finally the end of Hogarth’s satirical story depicted in his six paintings. I hope you liked them. When they were first shown to the public around 1743 they received poor reviews, much to the artist’s disappointment considering the amount of time he had put into them. His peers denigrated his efforts saying that they were merely caricatures. Hogarth had started preliminary work on what was to be another set of paintings entitled The Happy Marriage but probably, after the poor reception he received for Marriage à la Mode, he decided to shelve the project and now only a few unfinished sketches exist. In my opinion they were much more than just caricatures. The paintings give us a very human story and although we may take pleasure in the downfall of the Earl, his wife and the lawyer, I believe Hogarth wanted to draw from us a condemnation of the two fathers who, for financial gain, forced the two young people into an arranged marriage.
Hogarth sold his paintings for a mere twenty guineas and after changing hands a few more times became the property of the British Government and are part of the collection of the National Gallery in London and where they reside today in Room 35. I will certainly be heading there the next time I visit this great gallery.