Marriage A-la-Mode is a series of six satirical paintings by William Hogarth that warn against the upper-class practice of contractual marriage, in which matches are made like business transactions, exchanging wealth for entry into the aristocracy. The story develops through the paintings to include scenes of debauchery, disease, unhappiness, the birth of a sickly child and adultery, culminating in murder and the execution of the husband and suicide of the wife.

Hogarth was already famous for his depictions of the seamy underbelly of London, but it was Marriage A-la-Mode and his portrayal of the fashionable elite that solidified his reputation as a great artist and keen social observer.

Symbolism within the painting

This painting – The Settlement – is the first in the series. It depicts the negotiation between the Earl of Squander and a rich city alderman (merchant) over the marriage settlement between the Earl’s son and the alderman’s daughter.

On the right, the Earl of Squander points to an elaborate but suspect-looking family tree which claims ancestry to William the Conquer. He is suffering from gout, a symbol of his extravagant, expensive lifestyle. Sat opposite him, the shrewd alderman closely examines the marriage contract. Gold and bank notes are scattered over the table.

On the other side of the painting sit the newly betrothed couple, ignoring each other. The young aristocrat is dressed in the newest fashions from France and stares at himself in the mirror. On his neck is a black spot, indicating that he has syphilis. His bride sits next to him in her wedding gown, crying. She is comforted by the family lawyer Silvertongue, who whispers in her ear. In the bottom left-hand corner two dogs have been shackled together to encourage breeding, providing a dehumanising parallel to the young couple’s loveless marriage.

Marriage in 18th-century literature

Comparisons can be drawn between Hogarth’s series and the work of Henry Fielding, who tackles class and the marriage market in his comic novel Tom Jones. Tom Jones is barred from marrying his love interest, Sophia, because he belongs to a lower social class. At the same time, Sophia’s status as the sole heiress to her father’s fortune means that her hand in marriage is aggressively sought by rival gentlemen, while her family forcefully broker marriage on her behalf, without her consent.