Pieter Brueghel the Younger
The Peasant Wedding Feast
Oil on panel. 41.5 x 58.9 cm.
This depiction of an outdoor peasant wedding feast by Pieter Brueghel the Younger is one of only eight versions of a composition devised during the artist's later phase after 1616. As Klaus Ertz remarks, it represents the painter “at the pinnacle of his career” and is among “the highlights of the artist's production” (Ertz, op cit., p. 659ff). As Ertz also states, the work, which was previously housed in a West German private collection, is “of very fine quality” (Ertz, op. cit., p. 714) and is preserved in exceedingly good condition. The panel bears the mark of the Antwerp painter's guild to the reverse and has been slightly trimmed to the left edge. The composition (which Ertz refers to as 'wedding feast depiction type A') picks up an important and popular motif originating from Pieter's father, but interprets it in a new and different way.
The rustic feast takes place in the expansive courtyard of a farmstead, in which a long, low table has been set, filling the entire width of the foreground. Men and women, young and old, and even a dog have gathered around the table, where they enjoy a meal. We see figures pouring drinks, passing or sharing food, feeding their children or flirting, whilst the bagpipe player takes a break from playing to refresh himself. However, the actual protagonists of the scene, the bride and groom, are not found among the revellers in the foreground. Instead, they are relegated to a separate table on the right edge of the composition. The bride sits before a red cloth with a paper crown and surrounded by her family and retinue. Although this table retains a veneer of decorum, two guests have also begun to exchange caresses. At least the bagpipe player at the bridal table does not neglect his duties of entertaining the guests. In the background, we see the bride's parents honouring the old custom of donating bread to the needy, and the stew being prepared in a large cauldron.
Both the composition and iconography of Pieter Brueghel's Outdoor Wedding Feast represent a masterful development of his father's motif. The elongated table allows the artist to present his figures as if in a frieze, lined up in all manner of poses. We see figures from the front and back, kneeling, standing, crouching, recumbent, looking left and the right, raising their arms, drinking, toasting, eating and embracing. Each motif forms an element of interaction between two or more figures, their poses creating a rhythmic movement, and leading the viewer's gaze from group to group. For example, the figure of a woman on the left edge of the work, who we see simultaneously accepting the embraces of a male companion as well as a bowl of stew, is not only an amusing addition, but also serves to guide the viewer's eye across the composition.
The frieze like composition of the central figures leads the viewer towards the table on the right, the diagonal position of which in turn guides them back towards the centre. The vividly glowing colours of the green, yellow, red, and blue of the figures' clothing accentuate this pictorial rhythm. Pieter Brueghel borrows the compositional principles from country fair and dance scenes, applying them to his depiction of a wedding feast to create a new, dynamic and witty version of this subject.
The long table with the feasting peasants is not only a successful compositional arrangement, but also a clever iconographic device. Pieter Brueghel centres his composition on those figures relegated to the side table who, although separated from the more important wedding guests, seem the merrier company. It speaks for the artist's sense of humour that he placed the actual protagonists of the scene, the bride, to the side of the image to make the lesser, but jollier, party the centre of attention.
The diagonal placement of the bridal table references the famous work by Pieter Brueghel's father, which first made the peasant wedding motif worthy of painting (fig. 1; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, inv. no. GG 1027). With this pictorial reference, Pieter Brueghel indicates his respect for the creations of his illustrious father. However, by placing his motif to the side of his work, and the low table with its frieze like arrangement of figures in the centre, he also demonstrates his ability to reimagine the wedding feast motif in an innovative way; showing an artist “at the pinnacle of his career”. In his art, Pieter Brueghel aimed to continue the tradition established by his father whilst simultaneously creating his own, unique ideas. It was this mix of tradition and innovation that contemporaries most valued in Pieter Brueghel's art, as documented in a poem praising the artist beneath a portrait by Aegidius Sadeler II ("Nature, which the hand of the father expressed, lives in art. Art, which the genius of the son follows, lives in nature.“; fig. 2).
Fig. 1: Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Peasant Wedding Feast, circa 1568, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, inv. no. 1027
Fig. 2: Aegidius Sadeler II after Bartholomeus Spranger: Portrait of Pieter Brueghel the Younger, copperplate engraving
Private collection, France. - Galerie de Jonckheere, 1995 - Private Collegion, Great Britain. - With Bernheimer Fine Old Masters, Munich. - Private collection, Germany.
Klaus Ertz: Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere (1564-1637/38). Die Gemälde mit kritischem Œuvrekatalog. Lingen 2000, p. 714, no. E877, illus.