This lively Wedding Feast is the only extant autograph example of this version of the composition by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (three other variants on the theme are known). Although undated, the spelling of his surname ‘BREVGHEL’ was favored by the painter only after circa 1616, indicating that this work was almost certainly painted after this date (K. Ertz, Breughel-Brueghel: Une famille des peintres flamands vers 1600, exhibition catalogue, Antwerp, 1998, p. 19).
While Brueghel’s father, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, was the primary source of inspiration for the younger artist’s designs, here the Younger also looked to his father's contemporary, Marten van Cleve, adopting the composition of his Presentation of the Wedding Gifts, once a part of a series of five paintings depicting the festivities of a vernacular peasant marriage. Using van Cleve’s example as the basis for the composition, Brueghel removed several of the subsidiary figures as a means of placing greater focus on the central bridal party enjoying an outdoor wedding feast before a red awning. The artist also clearly relied on models produced by his father, recalling elements of the Elder’s famed Peasant Wedding (fig. 1; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), particularly in the presentation of the self-assured, calm bride and attendants serving wedding soup.
Through the brilliant red awning, Brueghel directs the viewer’s attention to the foreground festivities, focusing much of his efforts on the sumptuously spread table, which would have been the most appealing element to his patrons (see K. Ertz, op. cit., 2000, p. 661). While the bride can be recognized by her fur-lined gown and maiden crown, a symbol of her purity, the figure of the bridegroom, much like in Bruegel the Elder’s Peasant Wedding, is somewhat ambiguous. Indeed, none of the figures can be comfortably identified as the young bride’s new spouse, and, as in the Vienna painting, the bridegroom’s potential absence may in fact have been a deliberate exclusion, designed to illustrate the proverb ‘It is a poor man who is not able to be at his own wedding’ (J. van der Elst, The Last Flowering of the Middle Ages, New York, 1944, p. 122).