Monday 19 March 2018

What lies beneath: Marriage

Marriage, Oil on canvas, by Walter Sadler (1854-1923), Auckland Art Gallery

Walter Sadler's Marriage
Walter Sadler's Marriage

Niall MacMonagle

"If you are afraid of loneliness, don't marry." Yeah. Thanks a bunch, Chekhov. And in this painting from 1896, the married couple look as if they might be having second thoughts. Seated, side-by-side, on an ornate garden seat in early summer, they are young, they are elegantly dressed and it would seem that they are no longer in love. Were they ever?

His nibs is reading. The leather-bound volume, elegantly held in his right hand, holds all his attention; his left hand languidly rests on the stone bench. There are two more books on his lap. He's certainly brought enough reading material with him. Couldn't she borrow one? It would take her mind off things.

Bonneted, hands on seat, her eyes are cast down, and, in terms of body language there is a Grand Canyon of emptiness between them. Have they both married the wrong person? Just look at the dainty way he has turned away from her, legs together, prim and proper. What's he reading? It's not Fifty Shades of Grey. On her lap there's a little posy of flowers and at her feet two fallen roses. Before her on the grass, what looks like a racquet. Anyone for tennis? Not doubles, anyway.

What is going on here? The painting is a guessing game. Though the figures are awkwardly seated, the composition - brick wall, foliage, the tumbling nasturtiums in garden urns on either side - is beautifully done. Behind Mr and Mrs, an archway to a hedge-bordered pathway adds perspective. The seat creates a circular opening through the arch; that perfect golden circle, the wedding ring, could come to mind.

Marriage has been on the nation's mind for months now, and this time next week Ireland will have said Yes or No to same-sex marriage. Whichever it is, the result will tell us, and the world, something really significant about ourselves.

Whatever the outcome, the sky won't fall in. "All romances end at marriage" says Sergeant Troy in Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd. Is Sadler's portrait of a marriage post-Romantic? They certainly don't look as if they'll be tumbling together into a double bed anytime soon.

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