Masterpiece Story: Marriage A-la-Mode by William Hogarth

Pola Otterstein 19 March 2024 min Read

The 18th-century British painter William Hogarth created an insightful series of paintings about the arranged marriages of his times, entitled Marriage A-la-Mode. The series takes us into the unholy world of love affairs and marriage contracts amongst the aristocracy, with a plot portraying scenes of human indulgence and greed.

Settled marriages were a common thing in Britain’s past – just as they were in many other countries – and still are in some. Parents of the bride and the groom would decide whom their children should marry, with potential candidates ideally judged by their wealth and influence. During the 18th century, it became common for men amongst the upper classes to give “pin money” to their wives of lower financial standing, which was a kind of allowance to permit them to fulfill their personal fancies.

Indeed, a set of standards evolved around the concept of arranged marriages as related by H. J Habakkuk in his journal article Marriage Settlements in the Eighteenth Century: “In the early 18th century, the arrangements by which the English aristocracy and gentry commonly provided for their families conformed to a standard pattern, the strict settlement, in which the essential questions were settled at the marriage of the eldest son.”

The Paintings

The beginning of the story painted by William Hogarth takes place in the manor of Earl Squanderfield, who is bankrupt and wants his son – the viscount – to marry the daughter of a wealthy, but mean city merchant. It is a tragic story spread out over six works, each one telling the subsequent part of the story over the previous painting.

William Hogarth, Marriage A-la-Mode: 1. The Marriage Settlement, 1743, National Gallery, London, UK.

In line with the practice of the period, the first painting is titled The Marriage Settlement, which shows the marriage contract being negotiated by the lawyer Silvertongue.

William Hogarth, Marriage A-la-Mode: 2. The Tête à Tête, 1743, National Gallery, London, UK.

The second painting, titled The Tête à Tête, shows the married, but unhappy couple. The groom has a black spot on his neck, which is a sign of syphilis.

William Hogarth, Marriage A-la-Mode: 3. The Inspection, 1743, National Gallery, London, UK.

The third painting, The Inspection, portrays a scene of the viscount visiting the doctor with a very young prostitute. He is looking for a cure to his terrible illness.

William Hogarth, Marriage A-la-Mode: 4, The Toilette, 1743, National Gallery, London, UK.

The next painting, The Toilette, is about the death of the old Earl Squanderfield, making now his son the new earl and his wife a countess. The bride is enjoying her morning toilette and being entertained by guests including the lawyer Silvertongue. The images in the background have significant meaning in this painting and are foreboding of the tragic events to follow.

William Hogarth, Marriage A-la-Mode: 5. The Bagnio, 1743, National Gallery, London, UK.

The fifth painting, The Bagnio, is a scene picturing an affair: the countess and the lawyer have traveled to a bagnio – a cheap inn where no questions are asked. They are quickly discovered by the young earl, and as he fights with his rival he is mortally wounded, while the lawyer manages to escape through the window.

William Hogarth, Marriage A-la-Mode: 6. The Lady’s Death, 1743, National Gallery, London, UK.

In the last painting, titled The Lady’s Death, we see the widowed countess dying as she chose to poison herself. Her cruel father, who has arranged her life of hell and made her entirely unhappy; slips a ring from his dying daughter’s finger, knowing that consequences for suicide are forfeit. The woman’s baby daughter is also unlucky enough to have contracted syphilis from her mother.

William Hogarth’s Marriage A-la-Mode and his way of vividly criticizing upper-class marriage for money rather than for love, was scorned by the aristocracy of his time. Hogarth wanted to create another, corresponding series titled The Happy Marriage but he never finished it. Interestingly, Marriage A-la-Mode was met with little success during William Hogarth’s lifetime despite its great historical value for posterity. Today they are owned by London’s National Gallery.



H. J. Habakkuk, “Marriage Settlements in the Eighteenth Century“, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 1950, vol. 32, Cambridge University Press, p. 15-30.

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