Marriage à-la-mode 2: The Tête à Tête | William Hogarth | 1745
William Hogarth is recognized as the first Western artist who worked in series, that is, a group of paintings with a common thread, a common theme. Now many contemporary artists work in series to explore different styles and approaches to their art, but this was not usual in the 18th century.
Hogarth’s series are satirical and moralistic. He used his paintings to instruct the public in a variety of different topics. One was the marriage of convenience, which aroused much discussion at that time. Although, traditionally, marriages of convenience were the rule, most of these couples ended up being miserable. Many authors of that time began to believe that was love the basis for sustaining a healthy marriage, and not money. The artist, with the series Marriage à-la-mode wanted to illustrate the dangers of arranged marriages.
The second of these paintings, called Tête à Tête (“face to face”, referring to a private conversation between two people), also called Shortly after the marriage, shows the moment an arranged marriage begins to crumble. In it, we see the interior of a property and 4 characters: the couple (the Viscount and Viscountess, both seated), the Methodist servant (leaving the room) and the house servant (yawning behind). The action happens after the wedding night. The painting, full of symbols, shows us a situation we can only understand if we look carefully. The couple seems uninterested in each other. The woman is sitting with a smile as she stretches. Her legs are open, which alludes to sexuality, and it is believed her to have spent the wedding night with her lover. The husband, on the contrary, yawns with a tired and bored expression. He has spent the night in a brothel, which is inferred by the nightcap coming out from his coat and the dog smells. However, he has not had sex. The broken sword at his feet alludes to his impotence. The black patch on his neck tells us that the husband has contracted a sexually transmitted disease (this patch appears on the first painting in the series, so we know he had contracted the disease even before the marriage).
In Tête à Tête we look at a marriage that begins to crumble, but the story ends up much worse: the rest of the paintings tell us that the husband discovers his wife’s lover and is murdered. The homicidal lover is judged and hanged at Tyburn prison. Finally, the sentimental wife, depressed by the death of his lover, commits suicide.
Through satire and irony, with a bizarrely tragic history, Hogarth shows us some of his own beliefs and views on marriages of convenience. The series, despite the artist’s success, did not have the reception expected and had to be sold for a few coins.