This work is one of a series of preparatory drawings for Rego’s large scale pastel triptych The Betrothal: Lessons: The Shipwreck, after ‘Marriage a la Mode’ by Hogarth, 1999 (Tate T07919). Rego made the triptych for the exhibition Encounters: New Art from Old at the National Gallery, London in 2000. The exhibition curators invited contemporary artists to make new work in response to works in the National Gallery collection. Rego chose as her starting point the satirical narrative painting cycle Marriage A-la-Mode, c.1743 (National Gallery NG113-8) by William Hogarth (1697-1764). Hogarth’s series of six paintings, later reproduced as etchings, tell the story of an arranged marriage between the son of an impoverished aristocrat, the Earl of Squander, and the daughter of a social-climbing alderman. Paired off to satisfy the interests of their parents, the young couple is ill-matched from the start. Both lead dissolute, unhappy lives and die young: the syphilitic husband is murdered by his wife’s lover; she in turn poisons herself. Rego appropriated Hogarth’s subject, an arranged marriage, but transposed the setting to mid-twentieth-century Portugal.
This drawing is a study for The Betrothal, the left panel of the triptych which is based on the first painting in Hogarth’s series, The Marriage Settlement. Hogarth’s painting shows the fathers of the intended couple negotiating over the girl’s dowry. Study for ‘Betrothal’ replicates the composition of Hogarth’s original much more closely than Rego’s final painting. The ink and pencil sketch shows the two mothers brokering the future marriage of their children. Rego reverses not only the gender of the parents making the contract, but the financial situations of the families. In her story, the girl’s family is upper-middle class but has fallen on hard times. The boy’s nouveau riche mother is the former maid of the girl’s family (see Bradley, Paula Rego, p.102).
In the centre of the composition the two women face each other across a table. The girl’s mother, seated on the left, leans across the table while the boy’s mother reaches into the open handbag in her lap. The boy hugs his mother tightly from behind, climbing up on the back of her chair. Behind the women, a maid, a possible reference to the boy’s mother’s former position in the household, lowers a tea tray onto the table. She looks out a window into a garden where children are playing. On the far left of the picture the girl sits by herself, her back against a mirror. Her positioning is an echo of the young Viscount’s placement in Hogarth’s painting, but while Hogarth’s foppish young map admires his reflection, Rego’s little girl seems distracted by something beyond the edge of the picture. In the foreground, a man’s jacket and hat rest across a sofa or bed, alluding to the presence of a masculine figure in a room dominated by women. In the final composition for Betrothal, the mirror against which the girl reclines reflects her father. Rego has admitted that the father was a late addition. She has said, ‘Apart from the four central figures ... and the mirror, all the other elements, like the image of the man I suddenly saw reflected in the mirror, were added later’ (quoted in Judith Bumpus, ‘Paula Rego’, Encounters, p.268).
Rego has commented on the change between this study and the final version of The Betrothal, saying, ‘The tone of the pen-and-wash study is quite different to the finished pastel. It’s much sweeter’ (quoted in Bumpus, p.268). The triptych panel has a sense of claustrophobic menace that is not present in this more naturalistic study. The drawing marks an interim stage in Rego’s reworking of Hogarth’s original. Rego has said, ‘The space between the first drawing and the final picture is where you find out what it is you’ve got to say ... You invent a picture as it goes along’ (quoted in Bumpus, p.268).
Fiona Bradley and Edward King, Paula Rego: Celestina’s House, exhibition catalogue, Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, 2001, reproduced no.21 in colour.
Fiona Bradley, Paula Rego, 2002.
Richard Morphet, Robert Rosenblum, Judith Bumpus, et al., Encounters: New Art from Old, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery, London, 2000, reproduced p.268 in colour.