This work is a large scale pastel triptych made by the artist 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.
Rego’s work is in three panels. The Betrothal, the left panel of the triptych, 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. The Betrothal 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.
In the foreground a young girl, the intended bride, sprawls in a red armchair. She wears a white party dress and her bare foot rests on the back of a dog sitting beneath her. Her gaze appears to be directed at the viewer but a figure in a mirror behind her confirms that she is in fact looking at her father who is seated beyond the picture plane. The girl’s mother perches on the arm of her daughter’s chair, uncomfortably close to the boy’s mother who sits on a wooden chair clutching her fur stole. The adolescent boy crouches behind his mother hugging her tightly. Behind him an older woman in a red dress surveys the scene. In the back of the panel a seemingly unrelated scene hints at a tempestuous relationship ahead for the young couple. A clothed man is seen from behind, watching a woman in her underwear bend over to tug at her tights.
The centre panel entitled Lessons is, somewhat unusually, narrower than the panels on either side. 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. The mother sits on a swivel chair, with a large helmet-like hairdryer on a stand behind her. She leans forward towards a full length mirror, her chin up, apparently contemplating her own image. Her daughter sits on a raised platform at her feet, her face and upper body reflected in the mirror. Turning to face the mirror, the girl admires her mother’s reflection. The artist has described the scene as an apprenticeship in femininity.
The right panel, The Shipwreck, is loosely based on the dramatic fifth painting in Hogarth’s series, The Bagnio. In Hogarth’s painting the young husband, now the Earl, has surprised his wife and her lover. The lover has shot the Earl who falls in a fatal swoon. The Countess kneels at his side begging forgiveness. In the final panel of her triptych Rego reconfigures this scene as a modern Pietà. The young girl from the previous panels is now a woman. She sits in the same large red armchair she occupied in the left panel, this time as a mature woman cradling her husband whose recumbent position suggests he is asleep or dead. The room in which the scene is set contains the last of the couple’s possessions after the husband’s ill-fated adventures in Brazil. The woman looks to the right beyond the edge of the canvas towards an uncertain future. Her strength and fortitude are unmistakable.
The complex narrative that Rego constructed for her reconfiguration of Marriage A-la-Mode is typical of the artist’s practice. In the past she has appropriated and re-worked nursery rhymes and fairy tales in suites of drawings and paintings. An existing story provides a convenient starting point for the artist to extemporize, emphasizing her own political and feminist concerns. For more information on each of the panels in this work please see the short texts relating to Rego’s preparatory drawings for the triptych (Tate T07928-T07934).
Fiona Bradley and Edward King, Paula Rego: Celestina’s House, exhibition catalogue, Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, 2001, reproduced no.28 in colour.
Fiona Bradley, Paula Rego, London: Tate Publishing, 2002, reproduced no.82 in colour.
Richard Morphet, Robert Rosenblum, Judith Bumpus, et al., Encounters: New Art from Old, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery, London, 2000, reproduced pp.266-7 in colour.