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Hogarth prints put a twist on 'Till death do us part'

Friday, October 3, 2008 | 12:00 p.m. CDT; updated 8:49 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 8, 2008



COLUMBIA  — "Till death do us part" gets unconventional treatment in William Hogarth's "Marriage a la Mode," a series of six prints that starts with an arranged marriage and ends with the death of both the bride and groom. These prints largely make up a new exhibit at MU's Museum of Art and Archeology titled  “Satirizing the High Life: Hogarth’s Marriage a la Mode."

William Hogarth, born in 1697 in London, was recognized as one of the premier social commentators and reformers in Western Europe during the mid-18th century. He was among the first artists to create multiple, sequential works that told a unified story.

By the time Hogarth died in 1764, he was one of the most famous British-born painters ever, according to art historian David Piper's book, "The Illustrated History of Art."  

"Marriage a la Mode" satirizes arranged marriages, which were a common practice among the 18th-century European aristocracy. But Hogarth's keen social criticisms extend further to all aspects of the high life. He takes issue with members of the nobility, usually portraying them as inept or immoral. The series of prints cover the events leading up to and after the marriage of an unnamed young bride to the son of the Earl of Squander.

"Hogarth always succeeds in communicating across the centuries," said Michael Yonan, an assistant professor of 18th- and 19th-century art at MU. "Hogarth resembles modern political cartoons."

Though the prints can be interpreted differently, in the first print, "The Marriage Settlement," the Earl of Squander is sitting with his foot propped up because he has gout. During this time, gout was actually a symbol of status. The earl's family tree is also displayed conspicuously. It traces his lineage to William the Conqueror, affirming his upper-class status. The earl is arranging his son's marriage to finance the construction of his palace. The bride comes from a lower social class, but her father is a wealthy alderman and her dowry is of considerable size.

Other prints in the series include a scene of the groom visiting a doctor, complaining that the pills used to treat his syphilis weren't working. There is also a scene depicting the fallout of a love affair between the bride and the groom’s lawyer, Silvertongue.

"Hogarth uses satirical, biting humor in his works," Yonan said.

Hogarth used his art to skewer many contemporary institutions. The exhibit will also feature "Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism: A Medley." This work from 1762 takes a close look at religion. Many Methodist preachers were attacked in the 1740s as practitioners of "Diabolic Arts," which supposedly caused many to lose their reason.

"This print reflects the 18th-century heightened skepticism of English Methodist religious enthusiasm, which became linked to insanity," said Mary Pixley, associate curator of American and European art at the museum and curator of this exhibit. Hogarth was a proponent of the Enlightenment.

"A Midnight Modern Conversation" is also included in this exhibit. The print depicts a scene of 18th-century debauchery. It shows a group of upper-class men; some are drinking, some are smoking and others have passed out on the floor.

In "A Midnight Modern Conversation," Hogarth "was discovering the use of humor to help the viewer explore the deeper social implications of the subject as well as make it acceptable to look at works with such a dissolute subject matter," Pixley said. 

All of the "Marriage a la Mode" prints  were made during Hogarth's lifetime and the artist himself oversaw their production.

"Marriage a la Mode" was originally painted around 1743 and then engraved on plates for printmaking in 1745.

The prints were a gift from the Museum Associates, who purchased them from Carolyn Bullard, a print dealer from Texas. The Museum Associates is an organization that raises funds to support the Museum of Art and Archeology and advance its mission.

Pixley said the high quality of the "Marriage a la Mode" prints is remarkable, considering their age. She also said the other two prints in the exhibit are of  good quality considering their age.

"The caliber of details and the variety of shades of gray, white and black gives a coloristic quality to the piece," Pixley said.

The clarity of the prints is only surpassed by the astute observations made by Hogarth. "Hogarth deals with social phenomena that are still relevant today, like in this instance, marriage," Yonan said.

Yonan said Hogarth steps across many boundaries. "Even if you don’t typically respond to art, you will probably like this exhibit," he said.

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