Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Peasant Wedding

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Peasant Wedding, 1567, oil on canvas, 114 x 164 cm (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Bruegel’s paintings convince the viewer that the scenes are transcriptions of “daily life.” We are convinced of something that is most definitely not the case in reality.

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] Art so often focuses on the lives of kings, of biblical figures, of saints and martyrs, but what about everyday people? What about most of us?

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:15] Well, that’s exactly what we get to see thanks to Bruegel, who was known as “the peasant painter.” We’re seeing a peasant wedding from the late 16th century.

Dr. Zucker: [0:24] There’s so much to look at here. There’s so many people crowded into this barn-like space. You can see huge walls of hay that are being stored in the background, and in front of that, a long table with, well, the wedding party.

Dr. Harris: [0:36] This is a new type of painting. This is a genre painting, a scene of everyday life. This is a subject that begins to be painted in the 16th century because the Protestant Reformation has happened.

Dr. Zucker: [0:47] The artists’ traditional patron, the church, and people buying art for the church, has disappeared. Now the artists are looking for different subjects and we have the birth of landscape painting, genre. We see still life beginning to develop. This new array of options, of possibilities, but of course patronage is still coming from the wealthy.

[1:06] This is a culture that was based on trade and manufacturing. It would have been those that had made significant amount of money and would have then gone to artists and said, “Paint me a painting about our world.”

Dr. Harris: [1:16] There was something really appealing about a monumental painting of peasants celebrating life, enjoying each other’s company, and celebrating a wedding.

Dr. Zucker: [1:25] You used the word “monumental” a moment ago, and that’s such a perfect word for this painting. Bruegel paints in a style that feels monumental. The figures are solid. They seem like the salt of the earth. Everything about this painting has a feeling of warm roughness.

Dr. Harris: [1:39] It’s important to think about that in relationship to the culture of Antwerp and Brussels, where Bruegel worked. Those were big cities that, as you said, were really wealthy. But what Bruegel is showing us here and what his patrons wanted to see was a much simpler life.

Dr. Zucker: [1:54] Let’s do exactly what the artist is inviting us to do. Let’s walk in.

Dr. Harris: [1:58] There’s a lot of feasting and drinking. A lot of drinking, especially. We see the figure on the lower left who’s pouring out the drink that’s being enjoyed.

Dr. Zucker: [2:06] My guess is that’s beer. This is Flanders, what is now Belgium, and they make great beer. And it makes sense because that’s a drink made from grain, the very material that is so much a part of the life of these peasants. They’re growing it, they’re harvesting it, and here they’re participating in a wedding on the thrashing floor.

[2:24] My eye first goes to that tray that’s being carried by those two waiters, [where] they seem to be bringing in some porridge or pudding in these earthenware bowls. If you look a little bit past that, you can see a man in a red cap who’s picking up those bowls and seems to be passing them down the table.

Dr. Harris: [2:41] Carelessly, because one looks like the food is about to slip out of the bowl.

Dr. Zucker: [2:45] True, we might look under his hand and see that there’s a knife, there’s a cutting board, there’s a loaf of bread, and then we might go to the right and there we see, seated in a high-back chair, the notary, the legal observer of the wedding.

[2:59] To his left, we can see a Franciscan speaking to a man who’s elegantly dressed and really stands out. That would probably be the landowner, the noble whose land all of these peasants worked.

Dr. Harris: [3:10] The artist is really drawing our attention to the star of the wedding, star of any wedding, the bride, who forms the top of a pyramid between these two figures in the foreground that you were describing.

[3:22] She sits in front of a green cloth, this was the tradition, below a crown and also wearing a crown. She sits very modestly and demurely, not partaking in eating and drinking, all part of the way peasants celebrated weddings in the 16th century.

Dr. Zucker: [3:37] Scholars have done research and determined that Bruegel is quite accurate in his representation. He’s trying to get right how these rituals were enacted. The idea that the bride would stay very passive with her hands folded, not eating, not speaking, under that crown made of paper…

Dr. Harris: [3:54] Not jewels.

Dr. Zucker: [3:55] Definitely not jewels…is apparently quite accurate. It is this glimpse, not only for us now in a later era, but even for the city patrons.

Dr. Harris: [4:04] When we think about that anthropologist’s view, maybe sometimes we think about a view that’s very distant, but I don’t feel that with Bruegel. I feel a sense of sympathy with these figures, a sense of shared humanity. I think that’s what makes him a great painter, is that we look at the faces and they feel like people we might know or recognize.

Dr. Zucker: [4:24] I really love the lower left corner of the painting, this little boy whose face is almost completely obscured by his hat. Although he’s been dressed up, he’s got that wonderful peacock feather in his cap, and he’s making sure that he doesn’t miss any drop of that pudding.

Dr. Harris: [4:37] Then that figure who pours the beer is very graceful in his movements.

Dr. Zucker: [4:42] Beautifully foreshortened rendering of the face. This is almost drawing as well as painting. All the way at the far end of the table, there’s another lovely little vignette that shows a woman with a small child seated next to her who’s happily eating, and she seems to be looking up holding her stein, saying, “Would you fill this up for me?”

Dr. Harris: [4:58] “Would you mind getting me something else to drink?” There’s also the figure who’s playing the bagpipes, who’s watching the food come in. This is a lovely glimpse into life in the 16th century, painted with a sense of warmth and generosity.

Dr. Zucker: [5:13] We can inhabit this world with them in just a wonderfully intimate way.

[5:16] [music]

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”peasant wedding,”]

More Smarthistory images…

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Peasant Wedding," in Smarthistory, December 11, 2015, accessed July 19, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/pieter-bruegel-the-elder-peasant-wedding/.