The Outdoor Wedding Dance has long been celebrated as the high point of Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s oeuvre and has rightly been described by Georges Marlier, the great early twentieth-century scholar of Flemish art, as ‘one of the most popular of all subjects in Flemish painting at the beginning of the seventeenth century’(G. Marlier, Pierre Brueghel le Jeune, Brussels, 1969, p. 188). The present panel had escaped scholarly attention until it reappeared on the art market in the 1950s, and has subsequently been praised by Klaus Ertz as ranking amongst the best and unquestionably autograph versions of the subject (‘gehört zu den besten, unzweifelhaft eigenhändigen Versionen des Themas.’; op. cit., p. 723). This subject belongs to an iconographic tradition depicting the various episodes occurring throughout a Flemish peasant wedding day. This visual tradition was largely founded by Pieter Breugel the Elder, whose Wedding Feast of circa 1568 (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum) is the most iconic example of the genre. The Vienna composition was also taken up by the Younger Brueghel in four surviving panels, one of which is being offered as lot 14 in this sale.
The present composition, on the other hand, derives from a lost drawing or painting by Bruegel the Elder, known from an engraving by Pieter van der Heyden, and published by Hieronymus Cock (fig. 1). Pieter the Younger however developed and elaborated on this engraved composition and, unlike the print, placed considerable emphasis on the outdoor landscape setting, in which the vertical tree trunks act as repoussoirs and frame the scene. It has been suggested that Pieter the Elder’s original is a painting in the Detroit Institute of Arts, dated to 1566 (fig. 2). This claim should however be questioned on the basis of numerous differences in composition, and the fact that the picture is oriented in the same direction as the print – thus suggesting it was made after the engraved model. In his monograph, Ertz proposes that the Detroit picture may actually be a contemporary copy after a lost work by the Elder (Ertz, op. cit., p. 689). The most important difference is that in the Detroit picture the bride has mingled with the dancing guests, whilst in this panel, she sits in the background before a canopy.
Displayed before her is a plate bearing coins given to her as wedding gifts. A clue to her more reserved position may lie in the inscription accompanying van der Heyden’s print, describing the bride as ‘full and sweet’ – in other words, pregnant.
Pieter the Younger’s works of this type can be divided into two groups: those painted in the same arrangement as van der Heyden’s engraving, and those in reverse. The present picture, together with the majority of autograph versions, belongs to the latter group, believed to derive directly from his father’s lost work rather than from the print.
The earliest known paintings of this subject by Pieter the Younger are those in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, and the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, both of which are signed and dated 1607. The present lot belongs to the later treatments of this theme, which were executed until 1626. The picture bears the mark of the panel maker Michiel Claessens, who was active in Antwerp between 1590 and 1637, and dean of the guild of St. Luke in 1617.
Pieter Brueghel the Younger must have worked closely with him over the years as his brand can also be found on another panel of the same subject, dated 1625, which sold in these Rooms on 3 July 2012, lot 40 (£1,553,250) as well as on examples of The Good Shepherd of 1616 (Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique and Christie’s, London, 2 December 2014, lot 17).
The Outdoor Wedding Dance is one of the Brueghel family’s most enduringly popular compositions, with at least 30 recorded autograph versions by Pieter the Younger. This spectacular success has been credited by some to the serious moral undertone of this seemingly joyful celebration, warning of the attendant perils of over-indulgence, lust or greed. Yet this interpretation is far from certain. Instead, these works can be regarded as exemplifying the witty and intelligently observed combination of naturalism and humour that has ensured their undiminished popularity and relevance from the seventeenth century until the present day.