Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s Wedding Dance in the Open Air is an irresistible summons to a party. We are all invited – approaching from the edges of a wooded glade we can spy the bride at the heart of the festivities. She is seated at a table before a makeshift cloth of honour that has been strung up between two trees. Wearing a crown and a square-necked, fur-trimmed wedding dress she gazes contently at the growing platter of coins before her that are her wedding gifts.
The scene is framed by sinuous tree trunks, which wind towards the light sky and sprout silvery leaves. Below the green canopy stomping peasants beat the ground bare. With knobbly knees and heavy feet these figures are typically unrefined, or ‘Bruegelian’. Some tip up earthenware jugs and drink freely, exposing bellies barely contained by their clothing. Others embrace, kiss, strain to see the bridal table more clearly or turn to quietly relieve themselves against a wall. Most eye-catching of all are the dancers in the foreground, who hitch up their skirts and thrust their codpieces forward as they dance, fingers interlaced and noses shining. Only the two bagpipers appear wearied by the festivities; hunched against a tree, they glance sideways as though longing to be free of the composition.
The Bruegel dynasty is rightly celebrated for such lively scenes. It was Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s father, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who first invented the peasant picture. Famously keen-eyed, Bruegel was mythologised by Karel Van Mander as a sixteenth-century gate-crasher, who would attend weddings disguised as a peasant in order to capture more accurately the guests ‘in eating, drinking, dancing, leaping, lovemaking and other amusements’. In his scenes the humble peasant was monumentalised, and soon came to epitomise noble, vernacular Netherlandish culture under Spanish Habsburg rule.
The Wedding Dance in the Open Air is probably based on an original composition by Bruegel the Elder, but by the early seventeenth century such paintings were in short supply. Bruegel’s early death and relatively small output of paintings left a gap in the market, which was filled by his eldest son, Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Aged just four when he lost his father, Pieter the Younger nevertheless continued the legacy of peasant scenes, adopting a practice of serial reproduction in his Antwerp workshop and using cartoons to transfer popular motifs. The Wedding Dance in the Open Air was one of his most successful compositions, with at least a hundred versions in existence today, a third of which have been attributed to the hand of Pieter Brueghel the Younger himself.
Recent conservation and technical investigation of the Wedding Dance in the Open Air has revealed it to be a particularly high quality example, with a detailed, lively under-drawing and delicate paint handling suggesting the hand of the master himself rather than an assistant. Comparison with other versions of the scene has enabled the Holburne painting to be dated more accurately; the vibrant blue colour of one of the dancer’s jackets suggests that it should be grouped with versions painted between 1607 and 1614 (in later versions the same jacket is brown).
The painting is the only example of the scene in a UK public collection and forms the centrepiece of the exhibition ‘Bruegel: Defining a Dynasty’ at the Holburne Museum, Bath (11 February – 4 June). Here it is contextualised alongside numerous other paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, as well as works by four other generations of the celebrated Bruegel family. Restored to its former glory and on display for the first time in decades, the Wedding Dance in the Open Air glows with rich, earthy colours and anecdotal details that distinguish the dynasty and still delight to this day: an irresistible invitation to celebrate.
Amy Orrock is an independent art historian and curator. She received her PhD from the University of Edinburgh with a dissertation on Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Children’s Games. She has published and lectured widely on Flemish art of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Previous projects include work at Royal Collection Trust, Compton Verney, Warwickshire and the National Portrait Gallery, London where she contributed to Elizabeth I and Her People (2013).