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The Betrothal: Lessons: The Shipwreck, after ‘Marriage a la Mode’ by Hogarth, 1999

Paula Rego

3 works on paper, pastel, mounted onto aluminium
165 x 500 cm | Tate: Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund and the Gulbenkian Foundation 2002
© Tate, London 2017 © Paula Rego, courtesy of Marlborough Fine Art

 

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Artist Paula Rego plays a crucial role in defending the narrative nature of painting, endowing it with new meanings. She often uses stories inherited from literary sources and art history, applying a feminist point of view to them. This triptych uses as its reference Marriage à la mode, a series of engravings by the 18th-century artist William Hogarth, in which he criticized the society custom of arranged marriages based on social and economic interests. 

 

Rego subverts this series entirely, by changing the roles and appearance of the characters and of Hogarth’s story itself, transferring it from the 18th to the 20th century. In the left-hand panel, the future bride’s family are portrayed as members of the bourgeoisie who have come down in the world, while those of the groom are “nouveaux riches”. In the middle panel, Rego has swapped the privacy of the bride’s bedroom for a modern hairdressers’ salon, where the bride’s mother is treating herself to a beauty session and the young girl is receiving, in Rego’s own words, “a lesson on femininity” from her mother. The right-hand panel shows the tragic end of this tale: the bride-to-be is now a wife, and her husband lies inert on her lap, asleep or perhaps dead. She, meanwhile, shows tremendous fortitude, and her eyes are full of pride, character and self-confidence. This is how the artist explained her approach to this tale from the past: 

 

"If the story is a “given”, I take liberties with it to adapt it to my personal experience and to make it provocative. I love stories, and at the same time I want to mistreat them; it’s like wanting to hurt the person you love."