This is just a short blog post discussing one painting by one of my favourite 18th century characters, William Hogarth. His pieces were often designed as social commentary/criticism so there is lots to unpack and you can link these images to how people saw the world around them. I’ve written about a couple before in my Gin Series.
In this painting William Hogarth explore themes familiar to him of sexual immorality and the aristocratic world. The painting is based on a comic play called The Lady’s Last Stake (Colley Cibber, 1708) so we know exactly what is in front of us. A married woman who is dangerous addicted to gambling has just lost her fortune to a man in the army.
Though it looks like he is pleading with her, our cheeky officer friend is offering the lady a deal. They will play one more game; if she wins, she wins everything, but if she loses her goods will still be returned but she will have to take him as a lover.
Her would-be-lover dangles her jewels from his hat, tempting her to accept. The jewels illustrate how this seduction is also a moment of economic exchange. Her honour for (her) worldly wealth.
As always with Hogarth there is lots of symbolism and small details in the painting. One of the pair – presumably the woman – has thrown the cards into the fire. On top of the fireplace a cupid on the clock carries a scythe – a dubious signal! Though the woman’s face is shielded from the heat of the fire by the fireguard, her cheeks are rosy – from her desire perhaps. Her body language is open and inviting (?). The small lap dog in the left-hand corner of the piece symbolises lust. In the bottom left-hand corner there is a letter which is difficult to read but which is from the lady’s husband. This emphasises her betrayal.
Marcia Pointon has written an interesting essay called ‘Women and their Jewels’ in which she notes an ironic opposition during the 18th century. To appear in public without jewels (as an aristocratic woman) would be making a statement i.e. very unusual. Young girls ‘ready for marriage’ would appear in public with the family jewels signalling the family’s ability to pay a good dowry. However, jewel often appeared in artwork and in public discourse as representative of superficiality and low quality jewels (or fake jewels) worn by the lower classes were seen as signals of immorality. In this painting, they are present at a moment which threatens marital stability. The woman’s addiction to gambling and gaining wealth is her moral downfall.
Do you know of any interesting jewel symbolism? Do you know why lapdogs represent lust? I’ve read this in several places but with no justification as to why! Help me out!