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 relates to a scene in the back of The Betrothal, the left panel of the triptych. In a narrow domestic interior, the pale, bent figure of a woman appears to be struggling into or out of her underwear. Her clothes lie discarded on a table in front of her. She appears traumatised; her bleak staring eyes are conveyed with small circles of ink and her mouth is a dark gash. Behind her a man dressed in a suit and tie sits on the edge of a coach or bed. His legs are spread and his hands rest on his knees. His gesture suggests he is very much in control. There is a wealth of detail in this small drawing; the woman stands in front of a fireplace above which hangs a landscape picture. There is a kettle on the floor by her feet. Behind the man, an additional figure appears in a darkened rectangular shape. It is unclear whether this is a mirror, a window or a painting.
Rego describes the image as a ‘rape scene’ (quoted in Judith Bumpus, ‘Paula Rego’, Encounters, p.269). In the final pastel, this motif occupies a small space at the top right hand corner. The subject is the same as the drawing but the composition has altered. In the pastel the man is standing. He is seen from behind, watching the woman as she tugs at her tights. Rego based this composition on Standing Figure and Nude, 1957 (private collection), a painting by her late husband, the artist Victor Willing (1928-88). In Willing’s painting, a man in a blue shirt and trousers watches as a naked woman tries to stand up from a bed. Rego was struck by the psychological force of Willing’s painting. She has said, ‘I sat for the woman, and the man is Vic ... The man is staring at the woman, controlling her, and she is crawling away, very submissive, almost cringing’ (quoted in Victor Willing, p.58). While working on The Betrothal, Rego made several studies of this scene with Willing’s painting as a reference point. She recounts, ‘I even built a Plasticine model, bought doll’s furniture and made figures in Plasticine in order to do this scene, and then I made drawings of it from various sides’ (quoted in Bumpus, p.269).
Fiona Bradley and Edward King, Paula Rego: Celestina’s House, exhibition catalogue, Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, 2001, reproduced no.26 in colour.
Fiona Bradley, Paula Rego, et al. Victor Willing, London, 2000.
Richard Morphet, Robert Rosenblum, Judith Bumpus, et al., Encounters: New Art from Old, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery, London, 2000.