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 Lessons, the centre panel of the triptych. It is loosely based on the fourth painting in Hogarth’s series, The Toilette. Hogarth’s painting shows the young wife, now a Countess, entertaining guests in her dressing room while a servant crimps her hair. Rego transposes this scene to a beauty parlour where the girl’s mother is having her hair done while her daughter looks on. In this preparatory study for the final pastel the mother is seen alone. She sits straight-backed in a swivel chair with a book open in her lap. She props her right foot on a low ledge in front of her. She is resting under a large, old fashioned hair dryer, which covers her head like a helmet. Partly because of the positioning of the dryer she sits with her chin raised. She wears a self-satisfied smile and looks completely comfortable in the private contemplation of her own sensuality.
Lessons is about the process of learning femininity and this drawing portrays the state of potent attractiveness and self-awareness to which the little girl in the pastel aspires. The woman derives her strength from her allure, and her beauty regime is part of the process of arming herself for the trials of her day. Rego apparently drew inspiration for Lessons from the portrait of Duke Federigo of Urbino with his son Guidobaldo, c.1476 (Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino) by Pedro Berruguete (1450-1504), which shows the Duke in full armour reading from a large volume while his young son stands by his side. Judith Bumpus has highlighted the different values the two parent figures represent. She has remarked, ‘Berruguete celebrates the Duke’s military prowess and intellectual pursuits, while Rego draws our attention to the mother’s sensuality and self-esteem’ (Bumpus, ‘Paula Rego’, Encounters, p.270). Rather than explicitly critiquing the gender imbalance such a juxtaposition might suggest, Rego celebrates the qualities that have traditionally given women a form of power.
Fiona Bradley and Edward King, Paula Rego: Celestina’s House, exhibition catalogue, Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, 2001, reproduced no.24 in colour.
Fiona Bradley, Paula Rego, London, 2002.
Richard Morphet, Robert Rosenblum, Judith Bumpus, et al., Encounters: New Art from Old, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery, London, 2000