Strategies for Showing: Women, Possession, and Representation in English Visual Culture, 1665-1800

By Marcia Pointon | Go to book overview

2
Marriage and its Boundaries: The Montgomery Sisters Adorning a Term of Hymen

MARRIAGE in eighteenth-century England was, for families of substance, an occasion for drawing up settlements for the protection and increase of property for both parties. Marriages, and engagements to be married, were also occasions for portraiture. In common with other eighteenth-century artists, Sir Joshua Reynolds was frequently commissioned to paint portraits of women about to be married, or recently wed. As Nicholas Penny has pointed out, men were seldom portrayed at the moment of this rite of passage. Rather their portraits would celebrate their Grand Tour or, later in life, some moment of special achievement whether civil or military.1 Moreover, as I have established, portraits, once executed, framed, and delivered, became part of a parcel of property with a history and a future, an object to be bequeathed, disposed of, stored, or displayed in a particular place.

in this chapter I shall frame questions about allegory and female portraiture in relation to a particular portrait painting by Reynolds, read within a historical agenda that is both general and very specific. The 1753 Hardwicke Marriage Act (which prescribed that marriages should take place in churches preceded by banns or licences designed to prevent clandestine unions) provoked several decades of debate about marriage and its different interpretations and applications for women and for men. The population controversy precipitated in 1755 by Revd William Brackeridge and growing concern about divorce are interconnected issues.2 These were national concerns, as the author of Hymen: A Poem, published in 1794, makes clear: 'Detest the Harlot's prostituted kiss | And flee the Brothel, for domestic bliss; | then might we hope to see firm Patriot's rise, | Bound to their country by the strongest ties.'3 This chapter

A short version of this chapter appeared in S. Schade, M. Wagner, and S. Weigel (eds.), Allegorien und Geschlechter-differenz ( Vienna, 1994). I would particularly like to thank Sigrid Schade, Gisela Ecker, and Conrad Hoffmann for their helpful contributions towards the writing of this chapter.

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