James Tissot (1836 – 1902) was the story-teller of elegant Victorian life. Without a Dowry is one of Tissot’s fifteen paintings in a series called La Femme à Paris. The picture is also known as Sunday in the Luxembourg Garden. The Jardin de Luxembourg was a popular recreational area on the Left Bank protected from the undesirables by a tall forged-iron fence. Here one could rent a chair to enjoy fresh air in comfort. The chair rental is probably the only Sunday pleasure the two women in the painting can afford. Both the mother and the daughter are in mourning – one can guess that the father, probably a poorly-paid government clerk, is gone and they are living on a small pension. Without a sufficient dowry, the young woman has no hope for a happy future. Maybe, just maybe, she will marry a widower with six children or an old man in need of a nurse. Until then, genteel poverty is her fate.
The marriage was a serious business in France and, as with all business, money was its essence. The following text, written by Charles C. Fulton, was published in 1873:
The matrimonial agencies of Paris do a thriving business. They are located in all sections of the city, and are of different classes, according to the wealth and standing of the families of the parties they deal with — young men who are looking for a wife with a good dowry, the money consideration being the main incentive, and parents who have marriageable daughters, being the principal customers. The agents, when they effect a marriage, stipulate that they shall receive five per cent of the dowry, and generally manage also to get a good retaining-fee from both parties. The larger establishments are in correspondence with similar agencies on all parts of the continent, and have become a necessity to parents who are looking out for eligible wives for their sons and responsible husbands for their daughters. The successful tradesman who has accumulated a fortune desires his daughters to marry in a higher circle than that in which he associates: hence the necessity of an agent to make the necessary advances. Then elaborate papers must be prepared and signed before the marriage is consummated, and unless the dowry is paid down at the stipulated time the engagement is off. To manage all these preliminaries requires practical knowledge and experience which few parties in private life could be expected to possess.
The agency of Madame St. Just only does openly what hundreds of others have for ages been doing secretly, and she has at once risen to the head of the profession. She is one of those business geniuses who believe in advertising, and she is, of course, pushing aside all the old fogies who have transacted their business as if secrecy was necessary to all their movements. Madame St. Just says the French law of marriage, and the national custom, render matrimonial agencies a necessity, and in a recent trial the courts have sustained the position she has taken. No one under twenty-five years of age, either son or daughter, can marry without the consent of his or her parents, or, if the parents are dead, without the consent of the grandparents, if any are living. If none of them are living, applicants must substantiate the fact by bringing certificates of their death and burial.
Thus it will be seen that parents make all the arrangements for marriage, and, as they do not know who are the eligible parties in the matrimonial market, they must apply to those who make it a business to keep a record, with the pedigree and pecuniary standing or prospects, of all the young men and girls who are similarly eligible. If John Smith should have settled on his daughter a dowry of twenty thousand francs, he has a money interest in securing for her a husband similarly endowed, and he awaits the guarantee of a responsible agent that there is no false pretense being practiced upon him. How would he be able to ascertain that Tom Brown, who applied for the hand of Miss Smith, was all that he represented himself to be, and whether his father was responsible for the twenty thousand francs which he had promised to give his son on the morning of his marriage, or how would he know that there were twenty or thirty young men of good family and good money-standing who are anxious to secure a wife with the twenty-thousand-franc charm possessed by Miss Smith, if there were not an agent to apply to who kept a record of all such young-aspirants for matrimony? Or how would the parents of these young men know that there was such an eligible party as Miss Smith in existence, if they had not applied to Madame St. Just for the information?
The Marriage Market (Newspaper ads.)