The Marriage Portrait

by Maggie O'Farrell

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The Marriage Portrait Themes

The main themes in The Marriage Portrait are concealment and invisibility, power and control, and birth and fertility.

  • Concealment and invisibility: Lucrezia values concealment, keeping secret the inmost thoughts and emotions she knows are considered unacceptable to others.
  • Power and control: Lucrezia constantly finds herself struggling against the constraints placed upon her by others and seeks her own agency.
  • Birth and fertility: The novel examines the social and psychological implications of birth and fertility.


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Last Updated on November 3, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1064

Concealment and Invisibility

Themes of concealment and invisibility persist throughout The Marriage Portrait. As a child, Lucrezia is constantly exploring passageways and hidden rooms, quietly skulking around the palazzo and collecting secrets and privileged information. As an adult, she comes to think of these passageways as a foundational part of herself, not just her surroundings—she likens her own secrets to unknown alleyways within herself, choosing to figuratively lock Alfonso out of certain places for her own emotional well-being. 

To Lucrezia, secrecy is safety. She secretly learns of her impending marriage to Alfonso, and she and Sofia conspire to hide her menses for a year to delay the proceedings. She secretly learns the Neapolitan dialect to eavesdrop on the nurses, which later allows her to covertly communicate with Jacopo. 

When she learns about underpaintings through her tutor’s examination of the stone marten portrait, she starts keeping secrets this way, too: she paints her truest desires and thoughts for just herself and then conceals them with paintings of subjects deemed more acceptable. Eventually, this understanding of her own multitudes allows her to see the same fractures as they occur in others. In the chapter “Man Asleep, Ruler at Rest,” she stares at Alfonso sleeping next to her and sees him as half a dozen men living in the same person:

Here, on the pillow next to hers, is yet another version of the man she has been given to. There are, it seems to her, many Alfonsos, all fitted inside one body. There is the heir she met on the battlements, as a child, then the person behind the marten painting and the loops and dashes of the letters sent from France during the two-year wait for marriage, then the duke who claimed her at the altar, the person in the carriage, and the man in shirt sleeves who gave her a tour of the garden. And now, here is another: a sleeping satyr, with a naked chest, his unnerving lower half concealed by the folds and drapes of sheets.

At various points throughout the text, Lucrezia describes herself, favorably and unfavorably, as “invisible.” But in “Honey Water,” during her portrait sitting, she has the startling experience of perhaps being seen for the very first time by one of the artist’s assistants: 

When Alfonso steps away, she sees that Jacopo’s eyes are resting upon her. Lucrezia looks at Jacopo and Jacopo looks back. His drawing hand has ceased, hovering over the page. She has, she can see, become visible, no longer the subject of his sketch, but as a person.

Being seen this way by Jacopo is the first of several encounters that recalibrate Lucrezia’s notion of what both visibility and romance might look like. Crucially, it is only because Jacopo truly sees her in this way that he also sees what a danger Alfonso is. Because he sees her, and by extension sees her circumstances, he helps her escape and survive.

Power and Control

Throughout the narrative of The Marriage Portrait, Lucrezia is routinely trapped by and subject to the power and control of the other characters. Her parents’ legal authority and social power keep her from living an everyday life as a youth, sheltering her in the palace and instilling harsh expectations for what is and isn’t deemed proper behavior. Eventually, this turns her into a political pawn and, against her will, she is married off to Alfonso for the sake of diplomatic relations.

Within her marriage to Alfonso, she is systematically stripped of her power. She is given freedom to roam the grounds at will, which nominally represents more physical freedom, but she is locked out of Alfonso’s life and stripped of discursive and social power. When she and Alfonso fail to conceive, her art, her paints, and her books are removed from her room. This is ostensibly to manage her temperature, a pseudoscientific metaphor for her character, but serves in practice to strip her of her intellectual and aesthetic power and bring her further under Alfonso’s control.

It is only at the book’s close, when she finally runs away, that Lucrezia’s relationship with power changes for the better. Though she no longer has the power of immense wealth, privilege, or governance, she has agency—that is, power over herself, to make her own decisions and pursue her own happiness—for the very first time in her short life.

Birth and Fertility

Throughout The Marriage Portrait, the author explores themes of birth and fertility, particularly focusing on a woman’s perceived obligation to reproduce during Lucrezia’s era.

Lucrezia’s mother Eleonora is so famously, robustly fertile that she is known throughout the region as “La Fecundissima of Florence,” hailed as having secured the familial dynasty through her legendary fertility. When Lucrezia is born and, as an infant, is much less agreeable and mild than her siblings, Eleonora blames her lack of focus during Lucrezia’s conception for this outcome. She had been inappropriately focused on matters of state, shirking her perceived obligation to her title by forgetting about fruitful domesticity, and a disagreeable child is seen as her punishment for this lapse.

The rumor of Eleonora’s fecundity, Lucrezia ultimately learns, is why Alfonso seeks out one of her daughters as his wife. Concerned about the viability of his rule in the absence of an heir, he hopes to reproduce as quickly as possible and secure his bloodline in the Ferrarese court. When he and Lucrezia ultimately fail to conceive, likely as a result of Alfonso’s rumored sterility, this is blamed on Lucrezia. At first, her punishment is rigorous fertility rituals and the dismantling of her entire life outside her potential motherhood. Eventually, the punishment is her attempted murder.

Three times in the narrative, Lucrezia experiences a figurative rebirth. As an infant, she is taken from the kitchen and placed back in the nursery, forced to acclimatize to a new life and a set of siblings she has never seen. As a bride, in her dead sister’s clothes and stepping into her dead sister’s life, she ceases being an eccentric teenage misfit and in an instant becomes the duchess of Ferrara. And at the story’s end, when Emilia is mistaken for Lucrezia, killed, and eventually laid to rest, Lucrezia sheds her old identity entirely to escape with Jacopo.

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Chapter Summaries