Traces of the Hand: Master Drawings from the Collection of Frederick and Lucy S. Herman
Caricature and Social Satire
Johann Eleazar Schenau
The Marriage Contract, c. 1770–1790
Pen with grey wash over chalk on wove paper
10 5/16x 15 5/16 in, 26.19 x 38.89 cm (sheet)
Provenance: Acquired from Herbert Feist, New York, 1969
Gift of The Frederick and Lucy S. Herman Foundation, 2006.11.66
This drawing depicts two families animatedly negotiating a marriage contract. In the early modern period, marriages were typically arranged to cement alliances and exchange or acquire land and property. Marriage was understood as a civil contract as well as a holy sacrament, and a legal contract defining the terms of a marriage was standard by the eighteenth century.1 By the mid-eighteenth century, however, a profound shift in ideas about marriage was underway and a growing number of couples married for love or companionship.2 Schenau’s genre scene comments on this contemporary social upheaval, playing on social conventions of etiquette and class behavior.3
Based on the exaggerated gestures of the characters, we can intuit the troubled state of the negotiations and the emotions of the individuals. Looking first at the young couple at right, the bride-to-be’s pose violates eighteenth-century decorum. She sits immodestly with her knees and ankles apart, leaning on her lover’s shoulder and holding his hand in an explicit show of affection, suggesting an indiscretion.4 The emphatic gestures of the groom’s parents—the seated lady and the standing gentlemen in the foreground—reiterate this indiscretion as they gesture toward the bride-to-be’s parted legs. The bride’s parents—seated across from the groom’s parents—react instinctively to the accusation. The mother throws up her hands in disbelief as the father recoils from the table, laying a protective arm on his daughter. The groom, whose tightly crossed legs contrast sharply with his fiancée’s, gestures melodramatically, as if the accusation of indiscretion is absurd and insupportable. The notary at left, who sits with the contract before him, grimaces in annoyance as the parents argue. Contractual negotiations have clearly broken down and the dowry on the table is still in the bride’s parents’ possession. Despite the bride-to-be’s compromised purity, the young couple still appears to be in love as signaled by their clasped hands, and the presence of a small dog—a symbol of loyalty—in the lower right corner. Adding intrigue to the scene, the notary’s young clerk leans behind the groom’s father, suggestively talking behind his back with his wife.
Though little known today, Schenau was a successful painter of portraits and genre subjects in Dresden and Paris. Genre scenes like this drawing provided an intimate peek into the private lives of real and imagined individuals, and encouraged "elevated discourse" through a universally familiar subject like marriage.5 Similar commentary on issues of marriage can also be seen in the work of Jean Baptist Greuze (French, 1725–1805) and William Hogarth (English, 1697–1764), both of whom influenced Schenau.6 Schenau’s works of the third quarter of the eighteenth century played a vital role in the cross-fertilization of subject matter and style between France and Germany in the period. So charming and popular were Schenau’s designs that in 1796 he was named the director of the drawing school for Meissen, the great eighteenth-century porcelain manufacturer.
1. Emma Barker, Greuze and the Painting of Sentiment, Cambridge, 2005, 50.
2. Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500–1800, London, 1977, 325.
3. Harald Marx and Gregor J.M. Weber, Dresden in the Ages of Splendor and Enlightenment: Eighteenth-Century Paintings from the Old Masters Picture Gallery, Columbus, OH: Columbus Museum of Art, 1999, 146.
4. Barker, Greuze 52–53.
5. Barker, Greuze 51–52. Compare Schenau’s drawing, Happy Family with Children Playing, National Gallery of Art, 1995.41.1. Satirical images of courtship by Schenau include L'Amant caché (Tajan: Important tableaux anciens, 23 March 2000, lot 16); and Le Couple surpris (Beaussant and Lefèvre: Dessins et tableaux anciens, 4 April 1997, lot 50).
6. For examples, see Jean Baptiste Greuze's The Marriage Contract (1761) (Musée du Louvre, Paris) in Emma Barker, Greuze and the Painting of Sentiment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), plate 1; and William Hogarth’s Marriage a la Mode series (1745) (National Gallery, London) in Robert L.S. Cowley, Marriage a la Mode: a Review of Hogarth's Narrative Art, Manchester, 1983, plate 1.