Then courts of kings were held in high renown, Ere made the common brothels of the town. There, virgins honourable vows received, But chaste as maids in monasteries lived. The king himself, to nuptial ties a slave, No bad example to his poets gave: And they, not bad, but in a vicious age, Had not, to please the prince, debauch’d the stage.
John Dryden, “The Wife of Bath her Tale”

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Hogarth’s ‘Marriage à-la-Mode’ and traditions of alterity

In 1993, Ruth Mellinkoff analysed mediaeval European iconography to discover a “specific pictorial code common to later medieval representations of Jews” (Hassig 25). The visual system Mellinkoff describes “depicts Jews as physically repellent, evil, and subnormal”, emphasising their role as “rejecters and murderers of God” (ibid). Common features of the code include distortions, deformities, grotesque facial expressions, dark or reddish skin and hair, blemishes and badges. Debra Hassig builds on Mellinkoff’s work to suggest that there is, in addition to any specifically anti-Semitic iconography, “a more general pictorial code that underlies not only representations of Jews, but also other members of the medieval underclass as well as their ideological parallels”, a code expressive of “sin, evil, barbarity, and subhumanity” (25). Mellinkoff and Hassig thus both detect and describe a detailed visual code, common across much of Western Europe for hundreds of years, which exists to depict and condition responses to alterity, to the oft-threatening and always suspect alien that hovers on the fringes of society. Hogarth seems to draw on the remnants of this tradition, consciously or otherwise, in his depictions of the bodies and visual characteristics of the characters of Marriage à-la-Mode[1]. Characteristic elements of mediaeval iconography appear in Hogarth’s paintings[2] in ways that inform our understanding of his story, while imposing moral comment on it.

Hassig explicates the common mediaeval understanding of the body’s ability to physically reflect mental or moral characteristics, grounded in a detailed theological discourse drawn from Aristotle (28-29). Signs of courage or cowardice, intelligence or stupidity, or willingness to hear the word of God, can all be reflected in physical aspects of the body. Under this system, xenophobia quickly appears - “swarthiness or dark skin indicates a coward, as does extremely wooly [or curly] hair” (28) – as does a co-dependent ethnocentricity, wherein the weakness of the sun in northern climes and its ferocity in the south lend justification to the theory that only in the centre of one’s cultural map do the perfect conditions for ideal humanity exist. Darkness of skin and hair and grotesque features can thus indicate a foreigner, but these markers could hardly be morally neutral. Their extreme version (and there is a solid continuum) is the fantastical bodies of the Monstrous Races, creatures from the extremes of the earth (or beneath it) with two heads, wings on their shoulders, faces fixed on backwards, etc – foreign in the extreme, bestial or diabolical.

The same visual code applied to geographical foreigners could be frequently applied to, for example, the tormentors of Christ (or of saints), and, by extension, to devils[3].  Common markers of vice included “ill-proportioned bodies, contorted postures, and ugly facial features... [including] large, pointy, or bulbous noses; mouths with fleshy lips... grotesque expressions; ruddy or dark skin; and facial blemishes” (29). Similar markers could be used to designate disease, although in most mediaeval iconography physical disease stands as a visual code for moral deformity rather than being represented as literal in itself. Common mediaeval iconography thus settles into a distinct ‘us’ and ‘them’, where distinctions in types and degrees of alterity – whether caused by geographical distance, physical or mental illness, religious differences or simple imagined monstrosity – are collapsed into a single, easily comprehensible set of visual signs that indicate ‘alien’, with an implicit moral judgement.

Hogarth’s characters in Marriage à-la-Mode are not caricatures, not exaggerated as most late mediaeval art can be (or as some of Hogarth’s own other work). They are painted naturalistically, giving more force to those features of their faces that partake in this tradition. While the faces of the main characters are not obviously grotesque, they surround themselves with characters – largely foreigners – with exaggerated noses or loose-lipped mouths (the apothecary and his assistant, the castrato, flautist, hairdresser and African servant). In moments of fashionable fancy, they indulge in facial expressions as extravagant and ridiculous as any monster could manage (see, for example, the swooning admirer of the castrato), as if to align themselves more nearly with those fashionable foreign objects they have brought into their homes. Curled hair is often a sign of alterity in mediaeval art; here, curls are affected to display membership of fashionable society. Curled and powdered wigs are prominent, and ‘The Toilette’ allows a glimpse of two heads of hair being done up to match. The gentleman with his head in curling papers draws attention to his own ridiculous appearance by the exaggerated delicacy with which he sips his cup, preventing a neutral reading of the image.

Dark colouring is an obvious indicator of foreign origin to an English audience, as indeed it remains in the case of the African or Eastern slaves seen in ‘The Toilette’ (and, to a certain extent, of the apothecary). In contrast, the reddish hues and darker skin of the mediaeval alien are also reflected in contrast with the fashionable pallor of the more ridiculous characters, a kind of exaggerated Englishness that becomes all the more foreign for it.

The custom of painting beauty spots on one’s face to contrast with that pallor is perhaps a more sinister echo of the blemishes associated with the mediaeval other. If we read them solely as beauty spots they are self-inflicted and ridiculous, a deliberate choice to deform oneself with the fashions that Hogarth ridicules. But of course, the dark spots have a darker purpose, in that, while they may be politely read by others within the scene as beauty spots, they are for Hogarth and his audience signs of encroaching syphilis – also, of course, self-inflicted. The destructive nature of the whole cycle is made explicit in the parallel between beauty spot and syphilitic deformity, less a visual pun than indistinguishable and inseparable symptoms of a single cause.

Similarly, the twisted and awkward stance of mediaeval aliens such as St Agatha’s tormentors is reflected in the self-inflicted deformities of Marriage à-la-Mode. The two central figures of ‘The Marriage Contract’ – the earl and the alderman – are both affected by it, one sitting awkwardly and inelegantly in this elevated setting with his sword poking between his legs, the other forced to rest his gout-ridden leg on a footstool. More serious physical deformities are shown by those suffering from advanced stages of syphilis – the bowed legs, the broken nose and bulldog face. It may also be noted that, in contrast to the tall, elegant bodies of the morally upright, mediaeval aliens rarely stand erect: similarly, the characters of Marriage à-la-Mode rarely rise to their feet. The only moment in which the viscount is seen out of a chair is in the moment, ironically, of his death and fall – in which the twisting of his legs recalls the bow-legged fate that would have awaited him had he lived.

These deformities of shape also find echo in the fashionable choices of the elite. The broken-nosed statue on the mantelpiece in ‘The Tête à Tête’ seems to mock its owner, whose syphilis is as yet only evidenced by the black spot on his neck. The child in ‘The Toilette’ points with laughter to the horns of a statuette, suggesting another kind of ‘monster’ that the new Earl resembles, as his wife arranges an assignation with Silvertongue. The “puffy and pregnant Chinese idols” (Lichtenberg 41) on the mantelpiece in ‘The Tête à Tête’ sit there naked and leering, as if in comment on the distortion of the human body invited into the very household by their owners. And, it must be said, the exaggerated ‘pug’ faces of the African slaves (fashionable accessories just like the statues) resemble the increasingly twisted faces of the child in ‘The Lady’s Death’ and the apothecary, both of whom are in the advanced stages of syphilis. This repeated alignment suggests a deliberate equation of the physical state of characters with the alien and contemptible other, drawn into that similarity by their own choices and excesses.

Indeed, Hogarth seems to hint that his characters go so far as to approach, not only the Italian or French foreigner, but the ultimate other represented by the Monstrous Races, in which the human blends repulsively with the animal. In the very first painting the coupled hounds serve as a metaphor for the young couple, a metaphor that could be sympathetic; but over the course of the series, the animal imagery begins to lend more serious comment to the moral state of the characters. In ‘The Tête à Tête’ a little dog points out his master’s transgressions with his excitement over the hat in the viscount’s pocket (the angle of his body recalling the viscount’s presumed erection). In ‘The Toilette’, the walls are lined with paintings of classical and biblical scenes that approach the animalistic: Lot reduced to an animal by alcohol and the prospect of sex with his daughters, Io and Ganymede in the embrace of Jupiter’s various incarnations. The latter, with the hint of castration offered by the angle of the eagle’s head, seems to deliberately suggest a comparison with the castrato seated below, implying that the contents of the other paintings should also reflect on the remainder of the characters. In ‘The Lady’s Death’, finally, the dog rises to the level of the humans as he stands on a chair to steal the head of a pig from the table – and the expression on the face of the pig recalls suspiciously the face of the dying Countess, whose father is busily removing the ring from her finger. Spatially, the usual ‘them’ – the animal, the foreigner – is equated exactly with the humans who represent the centre and apex of social existence, precisely those one would expect to be the epitome of the ‘us’.

Indeed, the spatial difference between the old alien and the new is at the heart of Hogarth’s apparent concerns. Where Mellinkoff’s monsters are “subnormal”, outside and degraded below the privileged circle of Christian society, the problem with Hogarth’s monsters is precisely that they are not. They are supernormal, the upper echelon of society, welcomed and treasured, and they invite into that precious core of Englishness those foreign “deformities” that corrupt it, for imitation by the less fashionable. Alien they are not, but worse – they aspire to it. Geographically, they are at the centre of society (and often of the frame), as the glimpses of London through the windows suggest; and they are enclosed, indoors, not outdoors on the more liminal, socially ambiguous zone of the streets. Indeed, every window looks out not onto a street, but over it. Far from being debased below society’s scorning heels, Hogarth’s creatures are elevated above them. Indeed, as we are reminded by the glimpse of scaffolding through the window in ‘The Marriage Settlement’, the hands of the populace are engaged in erecting the high seats of the mighty – as they are the final scaffold of Silvertongue, elevated finally and ironically to his death.

I do not suggest that Hogarth was deliberately reviving visual motifs that he felt to be mediaeval. The effectiveness of such symbolism requires on it being both commonly agreed and, on some level, intuitive. The grotesque and deformed can be, in any culture, a convenient visual code for moral deformity or subhumanity, built on an instinctive sense of revulsion which artists can emphasise by contrasting such visuals with the elegant and the shapely (see the contrast between Agatha and her tormentors in the appendix). However, the possibility – indeed, likelihood – of a negative symbolism constructed around the grotesque arising spontaneously in several different cultures need not imply that it arises spontaneously at different temporal moments within one culture. I propose that Hogarth draws on (and slyly alters) visual codes that are not mediaeval, but eighteenth-century, with centuries of cultural weight behind them. A language must be understood by its audience, after all. Contemporary comments suggest that, indeed, this deliberate twisting of nature on Hogarth’s part was received with sensitivity. Lichtenberg has much to say about the hideous distortions of, for example, the body of the Italian castrato (which he compares to the equally dismaying body of the black servant in the background), the twisted body of the apothecary and the “most outrageous artistic motifs from northeastern Asia” on the mantelpiece (41). To Lichtenberg, these ridiculously affected deformities are like the fish inhabiting the bushes carved into a clock in ‘The Tête à Tête’, “something one rarely gets to see in nature” (43): as unnatural, one might say, as the Monstrous Races that inhabit the fringes of mediaeval maps.



Hassig, Debra. “The Iconography of Rejection: Jews and other Monstrous Races”. Image and Belief: Studies in Celebration of the Eightieth Anniversary of the Index of Christian Art. Ed. Colum Hourihane. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999. 25-46.

Lichtenberg, Georg Cristoph. Hogarth on High Life. Trans. & ed. Arthur S. Wensinger & W. B. Coley. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1970.

Mellinkoff, Ruth. Outcasts: Signs of Otherness in Northern European Art of the Late Middle Ages. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.


[1] Yes, that link goes to Wikipedia. Yes, I am suggesting use of Wikipedia as a source. Seriously. It has the best-quality digital images of the paintings on the internet, at least so far as I’ve been able to find, and enough of a commentary to tell the story without heading into disputed territory of interpretation.

[2] I here consider the paintings primarily rather than the engravings, as it allows me to take into consideration elements of colour that add to my argument. For convenience, however, I use the names given to the individual engravings - ‘The Toilette’, ‘The Marriage Settlement’ etc – rather than referring to the paintings by number.

[3] For example, see the torment of St Agatha. Note the grimaces, full lips and curled hair of her tormentors, the contrast between the colour of her skin and theirs (red in colour in the manuscript, not used lightly given the cost of red ink) , their twisted postures (as emphasised by the folds of their clothing), their obvious physical exertion and the phallic overtones in the positioning of their pliars. By contrast, Agatha seems oblivious to the proceedings (almost smug!), her body is elongated and elegant and she is elevated above the level of her tormentors, approaching Heaven in her position and Christ in her semi-crucified attitude.

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