03. Early Europe & Colonial Americas, Art & Humanities

#98. The Tête à Tête, from Marriage à la Mode. William Hogarth. c. 1743 CE. Oil on canvas.

#98. The Tête à Tête, from Marriage à la Mode. William Hogarth. c. 1743 CE. Oil on canvas.

The Tête à Tête is one image out of six from the satirical series Marriage à la Mode. In my opinion this piece is impossible to teach without the context of the entire series. If you would like more information on how I teach the piece, read that blog post HERE.

Marriage à la Mode Overview

Hogarth borrowed much from his style and content matter from the contemporaneous Rococo movement popularized in France. However, instead of creating “fluffy” scenes with lovers and cupids, his artwork looks beyond the surface to the real life consequences of the languished, aristocratic lifestyle. Hogarth does not create, nor celebrate, a fantasy world; he creates a mirror into the folly of the upper classes in 18th century England.

Hogarth focuses this piece, any many of this others, on the newly emerged, wealthier middle class in England. The series follows, similarly to a comic strip, a young married couple: The son of the Earl of Squander to the Alderman’s daughter. They are embarking on a marriage of “folly,” with immorality and ruin.

Watch more: “Bouke de Vries Reinterprets the Satire of Hogarth”
Note that this set above switches the first and second in the series. Keep that in mind when reading the overall narrative I have presented below

In brief, the 6 scenes are as follows:

  1. The marriage agreement being negotiated and signed by the fathers, much to the future wife’s dismay and future husband’s indifference
  2. Wife and husband are exhausted from a night’s frivolity in separate pursuits: her to card games and him in the company of other women
  3. The husband is at the doctor’s with a young sickly girl (you can see indications of syphilis spots)
  4. The wife is in her toilette getting ready for the day while receiving visitors, one man (to the right) is identified as her lover
  5. After a ball, the wife and her lover take a room for the night but they are discovered by her husband and as her lover flees out the window, the husband dies
  6. After hearing of the hanging of her lover, the wife drinks a bottle of laudanum to commit suicide; a nurse holds her child for a final kiss, the child is sadly deformed by congenital syphilis

The Tête à Tête

The Tête à Tête, in my opinion, is the most visually striking of all the images in the set; it is also the “famous” image of the series. The expression “tête à tête” suggests the husband and wife having deep conversation, but quite the opposite is happening, and in their marriage at large.

The scene is set inside the elegant home of the aristocratic couple; based on the clock on the mantle, it is just before noon. The husband is slumped in his chair, presumably from a raucous night. His trusty dog, a common symbol for loyalty in art history, is sniffing at a woman’s cap sticking out of his pocket, presumably not his wife’s head covering. There is also another woman’s cap wrapped round the hilt of his sword on the floor. And the plot thickens…additionally to his languished pose and questionable souvenir, there is a black dot on his neck: a sign of syphilis.

His wife sits next to him, seeming to stretch in exhaustion of her long evening. Based on clues left around the room: overturned fiddle, pile of playing cards on the floor, and tables with extinguished candles, one can assume she stayed in with a party to play games and perhaps gamble. She looks slyly over to her husband fiddling with a mirror in her hand, perhaps a message to her own lover?

The room at large also continues the themes of immorality and folly. On the mantle piece and wall behind the couple are tacky nicknacks and cheap objects alongside a marble bust with a broken nose. To the left, exiting the room, is the steward of the household exasperated with the couple over overdue bills. The room beyond the couple is still in disarray from the festivities from the night before and a servant still getting ready for the day, with a big yawn to match. On the back wall is a picture gallery, the three large vertical piece seem to be angelic, or at least religious figures, however there is also an image all the way to the right partially covered with a curtain. It was common for homes of nobility to collect art that was considered “indecent” for the female gaze, therefore they would be covered with a curtain and unveiled for male company. This painting is suggestively partially uncovered, hinting at the activities “unknowingly” happening with the married couple as we will see in later images in the series.

Added Bonus

While doing research for this post, I stumbled upon a poem from the 17th century titled “Marriage a-la Mode”:

Why should a foolish marriage vow,
Which long ago was made,
Oblige us to each other now
When passion is decay’d?
We lov’d, and we lov’d, as long as we could,
Till our love was lov’d out in us both:
But our marriage is dead, when the pleasure is fled:
‘Twas pleasure first made it an oath.
If I have pleasures for a friend,
And farther love in store,
What wrong has he whose joys did end,
And who could give no more?
‘Tis a madness that he should be jealous of me,
Or that I should bar him of another:
For all we can gain is to give our selves pain,
When neither can hinder the other.

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