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.
Like Study for the Girl's Mother in ‘Betrothal’ II, 1999 (T07930), this drawing depicts the mother of the future bride. In The Betrothal, she is seen negotiating with the mother of the prospective groom in a paraphrase of The Marriage Settlement, the first painting in Hogarth’s series. In Rego’s version of the story the girl’s mother is an elegant bourgeoise whose family has fallen on hard times. The artist describes her as the more ‘refined’ of the two women in the final pastel (quoted in Judith Bumpus, ‘Paula Rego’, Encounters, p.269). This drawing shows her seated in an armchair. Svelte and ladylike with a long graceful neck, she is dressed simply but stylishly in a jacket and skirt. Her high heels emphasise her shapely legs. She leans forward, her hands clasped together, as if listening intently. The hands have been overworked in pencil, suggesting clenching and unclenching. Her body language is ambivalent; despite her earnest, nervous position, her chin is raised, suggesting that financial hardship has not affected her upper-middle class confidence and poise. Her demeanour exemplifies dignity under stress.
This quick sketch displays Rego’s fluent draughtsmanship. Executed in pencil, it demonstrates the artist’s primary concern with characterisation. The woman is rendered in detail with the face and hands most heavily worked while the chair in which she sits is conveyed with only a faint outline. Rego has discussed her preference for drawing as a medium, saying ‘I’m not really a painter ... What I’m interested in is drawing things’ (quoted in ‘Paula Rego interviewed by Edward King, February 2001’, Celestina’s House, p.11). She uses a small group of models whom she positions like actors, recording their expressions in sketches which form the basis of the more complex large scale pastels.
Fiona Bradley and Edward King, Paula Rego: Celestina’s House, exhibition catalogue, Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, 2001, reproduced no.22 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.