Marriage à la Gillray

The great English caricaturist James Gillray (1756-1815) was a brilliant draftsman and skilled printmaker, whose firm grasp of the essentials of history painting, fashionable portraiture, and contemporary romantic and "œgothic" art allowed him to burlesque those traditions, even as allusions to these sources enriched his satires. His images, inventively interwoven with carefully worded titles and texts, reflect his familiarity not only with current events, issues, and scandals, but with ancient history, mythology, and contemporary and classical literature.

In this amusing coupling of prints, Gillray contrasts the harmony of courtship with the discord of marriage in the guise of an amateur recital, a popular form of entertainment that Gillray considered in several other satires. In Harmony Before Matrimony, all is in rapturous accord: in an oval picture, Cupid takes aim at amorous doves; cats gambol playfully; goldfish swim toward each other; even a butterfly is attracted to his reflection in the mirror. The couple harmonize in love duets, and between them on the table is a copy of Ovid's The Art of Love. But as Matrimonial-Harmonics then makes clear, marriage takes its toll. The wife now sings "forte" of "Torture "” Fury "” Rage "” Despair "” I cannot can not bear," and on the piano and the floor are other songs in the recital, "Separation: a Finale for Two Voices with Accompaniment" and "The Wedding Ring: A Dirge." The baby cries, while a cat hisses at a barking dog, and the lovebirds are caught mid-squawk. Cupid sleeps on the mantelpiece, and the fire in the fireplace can't dull the domestic chill registering on the thermometer. Ovid is replaced on the chair by The Art of Tormenting.

James Gillray. Harmony Before Matrimony and Matrimonial-Harmonics. Etching and engraving, hand-colored, October 25, 1805. Published by Hannah Humphrey.
The New York Public Library, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Print Collection.

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