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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’ I, 1999 (T07929), 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 perched on the edge of an armchair in a similar position to the finished pastel. Her head is tilted towards the right of the picture at a slightly unnatural angle which accentuates her long bare neck. She wears a long jacket with pronounced shoulders and a skirt that demurely covers her knees. Her hands are loosely intertwined in her lap, with the long fingers of her left hand pointing vaguely downward. Her feet, in sensible but feminine high heeled shoes, point inwards so that the toes touch. This gesture is defensive and reserved but also girlish. The woman looks skittish and nervy; her slight frame appears sharp and angular. Rego described her intention for the final version of The Betrothal, saying, ‘I wanted the mood to be rather tense and brittle’ (Bumpus, p.269). This pencil drawing achieves that objective.
In this sketch, the woman is positioned to the left of the picture. She confronts an empty space which is filled in the final pastel with the figure of the boy’s mother, who is more flamboyantly dressed and coiffed. The empty space in the drawing accentuates the dreamy expression on the woman’s face as she stares off to the right. In the finished pastel she looks directly at the viewer or more accurately at her husband who is reflected in a mirror behind her. This subtle change in gaze makes the figure appear conspiratorial in a way that is not evident in the drawing. This study is still a work in progress, as can be seen by the dark smudges and fingerprints that mark the surface of the paper.
Fiona Bradley and Edward King, Paula Rego: Celestina’s House, exhibition catalogue, Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, 2001, reproduced no.23 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.