The composition, described by Marlier as 'un des plus populaires de toute le peinture flamande au début du XVIIe siècle', is one of a group by Brueghel representing different episodes during a wedding day, generally regarded as amongst the high points of the artist's oeuvre. The group's popularity can be understood through its combination of landscape and genre with Brueghel's familiar pathos-imbued depiction of bawdiness in seventeenth-century Flemish life. Like many of Pieter II's works, these are part of a tradition largely established by his father, Pieter Bruegel I - most notably the famous Wedding Banquet in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
The present composition derives from another, probably lost, drawing or painting by Pieter Bruegel I, known from an engraving by Pieter van der Heyden that was published by Hieronymus Cock; a derivation from the same source is also known by Jan Brueghel I (Bordeaux, Musée des Beaux-Arts). The earliest known paintings of this subject by Pieter II are those in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, and the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, both of which are signed and dated 1607; other versions are known with dates continuing until 1626.
Pieter II's works of this type can be divided into two groups: those painted in the same sense 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 engraving.
It has been suggested that Pieter I's original is the painting in the Detroit Institute of Arts, dated 1566. Accepted in full in the past, the question of that painting's authenticity has recently been re-examined. Ertz, in his monograph on Pieter II (op. cit.), notes that in his opinion it is either an original Pieter Bruegel I or a contemporary copy of a lost work. Either way, were it the original for the composition, both brothers, although retaining many of the motifs of their father's work, adapted the source for their own designs.
The most striking differences are that in the Detroit picture the bride has mingled with the dancing guests, whilst in the sons' works she sits in the background before a canopy with, before her, a plate of coins given as wedding gifts; also the number of people depicted has been reduced, increasing the extent of the landscape background. These differences and omissions are important enough to make it unlikely that the Detroit picture served as the model for the sons' works, and that instead the prototype remains unknown.
Because it was the subject of a sale in 1941 in occupied Belgium the present work is included in both the Repertoire des oeuvres d'art dont la Belgique a été spoliée durant la guerre 1939-1945 (9 ) and the Missing Art Works of Belgium (Part II, 1994, p. 17, no. 14) drawn up by the Belgian state. However recent research has established the full provenance of the picture between 1935 and 2002 and there is no suggestion in the provenance that the painting has at any stage been subject to any forced sale or theft.