Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Like a Hogarth Picture

"She looked hard at the room to get her senses into order again. She said:
'It's like a Hogarth picture. . . .'
The undissolvable air of the eighteenth century that the French contrive to retain in all their effects kept the scene singularly together. On a sofa sat the duchess with one of those impossible names: Beauchain-Radigutz or something like it. The bluish room was octagonal and vaulted, up to a rosette in the centre of the ceiling. English officers and V.A.D.s of some evident presence opened out to the left, French military and very black-clothed women of all ages, but all apparently widows, opened out to the right, as if the duchess shone down a sea at sunset. Beside her on the sofa you did not see Lady Sachse; leaning over her you did not see the prospective bride. This stoutish, unpresentable, coldly venomous woman, in black clothes so shabby they might have been grey tweed, extinguished other personalities as the sun conceals planets. A fattish, brilliantined personality, in mufti, with a scarlet rosette, stood sideways to the duchess' right, his hands extended forward as if in an invitation to dance; an extremely squat lady, also apparently a widow, extended, on the left of the duchess, both her black-gloved hands, as if she too were giving an invitation to the dance." (439)

The artist Sylvia references here is William Hogarth, a British painter and engraver who rose to popularity in the early eighteenth century. He was well known for despising all things French and for his creation of a new style and function of artwork, the modern morality painting. These paintings and engravings satirized what Hogarth saw as minor and social vices, and continued into a series that would culminate with the punishment of a more major crime. His distaste for France, French people, and the import of French culture to Britain were common themes.

Interestingly enough in relation to the scene transcribed above, one of the Hogarth's popular morality paintings was the series "Marriage a la Mode":

The Marriage Settlement

Tete a Tete

The Inspection

The Toilette

The Bagnio

The Lady's Death

In this series, the progression of a marriage in the French style is shown, from writing the settlement, to inspecting the bride, to the dual between groom and the bride's lover, through to the bride's suicide after learning her lover had been hanged for the murder of her to-be groom. In the text, Sylvia witnesses the signing of a marriage settlement in which the mother refuses to participate because of the price of coal. Sylvia compares this scene to a Hogarth painting, suggesting firstly that esthetically the scene does resemble a painting by that artist in its staging and cast of characters, secondly that Sylvia views the arrangement with the same distaste that Hogarth viewed his own subjects, amd thirdly that Sylvia believes that the scene's inherent immorality would eventually lead to a tragic but fitting end, as in Hogarth's famous series. An interesting position for a woman like Sylvia to take, considering the state of her own marriage.

Does anyone with more knowledge in art history or art have anything else they'd like to add here?

Sources: "William Hogarth" at The Artchive
The British National Gallery