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Inside Art: A wedding dance

Weddings and merrymaking in groups are off the cards at the moment, but celebrations have always been part of our DNA, as Bruegel the Younger’s Wedding Dance in the Open Air shows.

Art curator and historian, Monserrat Pis Marcos from The Holburne Museum gives us some insights into the painting

In a clearing at the edge of a village, a wedding celebration is taking place. The bride is seated at the table in the upper right, dressed in a traditional black wedding gown with a square neck. She is placed in front of a cloth stretched between two trees and beneath a crown that identifies her as a prominent figure in the event. Flanked by two women – probably her mother and her mother-in-law – she is looking at the coins being laid out on the platter before her as wedding gifts. In the foreground, the guests dance to the sound of bagpipes, while on the left others drink and embrace enthusiastically. Among the oblivious merrymakers on the left, a figure in dark clothing, as befitting a scholar or a church official, observes the scene without partaking in the joyful atmosphere.

The Brueghel dynasty produced four generation of artists. The founder, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, died in his forties, when his sons Pieter and Jan were still very young. Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s early demise explain the rarity of his surviving works today and, at the time of his death, opened a gap in the market that was taken up by his sons – particularly by the eldest, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, and his workshop.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder had made a name for himself through his depictions of peasant life, his religious scenes and his painstakingly detailed landscapes. Pieter Brueghel the Younger drew on his father’s legacy and used many of his motifs and compositions for his own works, running a busy studio that allowed him to keep up with the demand, predominantly from bourgeois and courtly collectors of Antwerp and Brussels.

The composition of Wedding Dance in the Open Air seems to have been inspired by one of such previous works by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, although this is no longer in existence. Irrespective of the Brueghels, wedding dances were hugely sought-after subjects at the time, to the point that one of the greatest scholars of Flemish art, Georges Marlier, defined it as ‘one of the most popular of all subjects in Flemish painting at the beginning of the seventeenth century’. This would explain why there are over a hundred versions of this composition by Pieter Brueghel the Younger and his workshop, though only over 30 of them can be securely attributed to Pieter himself.

Recent conservation work revealed the quality of Wedding Dance in the Open Air and the preparatory underdrawing beneath it. Although the painting is not dated or signed, some of its characteristics closely resemble other works by Pieter Brueghel the Younger himself. These discoveries have contributed to the reattribution of the painting to Pieter Brueghel the Younger instead of to his workshop, as it was originally thought, making it the only version of this scene painted by his hand currently kept in a British public collection. The Holburne Museum boasts the largest holding of works by Pieter Brueghel the Younger in the UK.

Main Image: Wedding Dance in the Open Air
Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564/5–1637/8)
Oil on panel, 1607–14
© The Holburne Museum, photograph by Dominic Brown

The Holburne Museum

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