top of page
  • Martina

The Peasant Wedding by Pieter Bruegel the Elder - Kunsthistorisches Museum Guide

Updated: Jul 1



The Peasant Wedding by Pieter Bruegel

The Peasant Wedding is an oil painting on panel by the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder, today exhibited at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria and depicting a rural scene, where a wedding feast of peasants takes place in a barn.


The painting was probably made in 1567, only a couple of years before the artist's death, and it is the perfect representation of his later, mature style as a Flemish Renaissance exponent. More than this, The Peasant Wedding is an accurate and precious representation of an often neglected side of history such as the everyday life in the countryside, although some people believe the artist left the viewers some moralistic messages to discover.


In this artwork profile, you will find a throughout description of this masterpiece, along with all the information you need to understand and see it in person!


 

In this article:


Artwork Profile and Analysis: The Peasant Wedding by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

 



Artwork Profile and Analysis: The Peasant Wedding by Pieter Bruegel the Elder



1. OVERVIEW


Title: The Peasant Wedding - name in artist's language: De Boerenbruiloft (Dutch) - name in current location: Die Bauernhochzeit (German)

Artist: Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525/30-1569)

Execution: ca. 1567

Commissioner: Unknown

Style: Flemish Renaissance, Genre painting

Subject: Representation of a lively peasant wedding feast

Technique: oil on oak wood panel

Dimensions: 114x164cm / 45x65in

Ticket: Yes (full price: 21€)




2. THE ARTIST: PIETER BRUEGHEL THE ELDER AND THE FLEMISH RENAISSANCE


The Peasant Wedding is a 1567 work of Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder who was living in Brussels and was unknowingly going through the very last years of life while creating this medium-sized painting.



Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525/30-1569) and his time

There is much about Pieter Bruegel that we don't know, including his date of birth and hometown. Bruegel was likely born a peasant in a small village in today the Netherlands and these poor origins, along with the manual jobs he would always exercise, meant that the documents surrounding his childhood years likely never existed or were not considered worthy of keeping.


What we know about his early life comes from his post-mortem biographers and from supposition: since there is a first mention of him in Antwerp in 1551 when he registered in the painters' guild as a free master, and since the registration normally took place at the age of max. 25, we can calculate his birth around 1525 and 1530.



A probable self-portrait of Pieter Bruegel the Elder
A probable self-portrait of Pieter Bruegel the Elder

We know for sure that Bruegel was born into a period in history that would be remembered as difficult and transitional, especially for people coming from what are today Belgium and the Netherlands. The Protestant revolution was taking over in Northern Europe and political turmoil was shacking these territories, making life extremely unstable and uncertain. At the same time, overwhelming revolutions were also disrupting the arts and culture world, in this case not for the worst. The 16th century was the time when the Italian Renaissance, now mature and turning into Mannerism, would strongly influence the entire continent, reaching Bruegel.


Indeed, right after registering himself as a free master (meaning that he had completed his apprenticeship and could now exercise), in 1551 Bruegel set off for Italy in search of inspiration. He would return in 1554, forever changed but never forgetful of his origins.


From 1554 to 1563, Bruegel lived in Antwerp - a lively and wealthy city with a strong presence of rich merchants - where he worked as a designer of prints for publishing companies. The printing of books was also a relative novelty and images had recently begun to be included as well. By the end of this decade spent in Antwerp, Bruegel had found his true passion and was almost solely painting.


Newly married, he eventually moved to Brussels in 1563, where he would stay until his premature death in 1569, leaving two sons behind. Even though their father would not live enough to train them, they would become such famous and skilled painters as to give our Pieter the nickname "the Elder" to distinguish him from his eldest son Pieter and to separate the generations.


Born a peasant or at least in a small town far from the main urban centers, the artist is sometimes called "Peasant-Bruegel" for his excellent ability to depict the everyday life of those who came from the countryside, The Peasant Wedding one of the best examples.


However, throughout his own life, Bruegel would get closer to the main intellectual waves of his time, and build a solid cultural background for himself, then reflected in the sharpness and depth of his works, and that would distance him from his poor origins.



The Flemish Renaissance

The artistic style of Pieter Bruegel the Elder belongs to what is called "Flemish Renaissance", a section of the Northern Renaissance, so-called to set it out from its popular precursor and model, the Italian Renaissance.


In fact, although Renaissance is immediately linked to Italy and the Peninsula is where some of the greatest masters of art operated, Northern Europe was not untouched by the infinite changes brought by the re-discovery of ancient philosophy and culture, and by Humanism (philosophical thought that put the human being at the center of the universe and rejected the religion- and theological-centered vision of the world typical of the Middle Ages). The ideals spread by the Renaissance in culture and arts soon reached artists and creatives of the whole of Europe, who began to apply the new ideas to their works, the influence of the Italian style sometimes more and sometimes less visible.


Villagers On Their Way to Church (1550) by Simon Bening, another exponent of Flemish Renaissance
Villagers On Their Way to Church (1550) by Simon Bening, another exponent of Flemish Renaissance

In the Low Countries (the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg), Renaissance lasted one century (the 16th) and had Antwerp as its center. There, where religion was always perceived differently than in Southern Europe and folklore and traditions were particularly strong, the new use of perspective, depth and proportion resulted in new genres, leaving often behind the classic religious and Biblical subjects in favour of nature and everyday life. This was also possible because the Low Countries and the Flanders in particular were trade lands, where merchants crowded the main ports. Merchants were rarely interested in propaganda and often commissioned works for their own residences and for private use, opening the art scenes to new possibilities.


As for Bruegel, the Italian years of his life surely had an impact on him and his style, but he followed the lead of his Flemish peers: the landscapes of Italy fascinated him more than the art of Michelangelo and Raphael and, although he surely saw their masterpieces and learned from them, he would remain strongly linked to his origins.



3. HISTORY AND COMMISSION


Not much is known about the vicissitudes of The Peasant Wedding, which commissioner remains a mystery.


Considering the subject, style and size, it is highly likely that the painting was created around the same moment as The Peasant Dance, another great genre scene and among the most popular artworks in Flemish art and in Pieter Bruegel's production. They might have been commissioned by the same person and destined for the same location, but no documented proof remains.


The Peasant Dance by Pieter Bruegel
The Peasant Dance by Pieter Bruegel

The artist was living in Brussels in the year 1567 when the paintings were probably made and today the two works are both displayed at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.


However, The Peasant Wedding had to travel a bit before he could safely land in the Austrian capital: in 1594 it was purchased by an Archduke, perhaps sold by the original commissioner or after a looting (similarly to The Hunters in the Snow). It then ended up in the hands of Rudolf II Habsburg, never to leave the family anymore and being eventually presented to all visitors as part of the most splendid art collection of the Habsburgs, at the Kunsthistorisches Museum.


A copy of The Peasant Wedding exists, made by Pieter Bruegel's son, Pieter Bruegel the Younger. Called The Wedding Feast and now part of a private collection, the 1620 painting obviously takes over from the original:

Copy of The Peasant Dance (The Wedding Feast) by Pieter Bruegel the Younger
Copy of The Peasant Dance (The Wedding Feast) by Pieter Bruegel the Younger




 



The Peasant Wedding by Pieter Bruegel
The Peasant Wedding - light has been slightly adjusted to highlight the details

4. DESCRIPTION AND SUBJECT


The Peasant Wedding is a representation of what its name anticipates: the wedding feast of a peasant couple. The subject was not new in Flemish art, but here Pieter Bruegel took it to another level thanks to the dynamicity of the scene, the sense of perspective and space provided by the table and the figures, and the influence of Italian art (especially on human figures). No specific detail catches the eye, but the spectator's sight is guided by the geometric construction of the painting.


The artwork comes in light and warm colors - with only a few exceptions -and appears quite crowded: a long table has been set up in a barn to welcome the guests. Not everyone is sitting though: on the left, two pipers play a doedelzak (a two-droned bagpipe typical of the Flanders); in the front, immediately visible thanks to the light blue robe one of them wears, two servants bring the much-longed-for plates of food on what looks like an old door re-adapted for the occasion. In the very front, a small boy whose face is almost fully covered by a big hat sucks his finger or perhaps licks some food; near him, on the extreme front left, a man pours some beer into a ceramic jug.


The scene looks so realistic we can almost hear the festive sounds coming from the barn, and it seems like it may even get noisier: more people are coming in - we can spot them rushing their way from the door at the very bottom of the painting, probably in search of food:


Pieter Bruegel, The Peasant Wedding - Detail
More people coming in

Given the ears of grain on the wall, we can safely suppose it's past harvesting season, so late spring/early summer:


Pieter Bruegel, The Peasant Wedding - Detail
Signs of the harvesting season

Even without reading the name, many are the hints that tell us we are looking at peasants. Most figures are dressed in peasant fashion, wearing poor robes with no decoration, no jewels and showing very basic quality. Even the bride, who was supposed to dress at her best on her wedding day, has chosen a rather nondescript robe.


The food that is being served is poor as well: soup, bread and porridge, the lack of diversity a clear sign of a lack of resources.


Pieter Bruegel, The Peasant Wedding - Detail
The poor food served from an old door

Lastly, the furnishings and location seem quite improvised: the feast is set in a barn, likely the only place available spacious enough to host the group; jugs, cutlery and plates are on the basic side, with no ornaments whatsoever (on wedding day you were supposed to show off your best set); the table, sittings and walls are roughly-made and, as we have seen, the serving panel for the food is nothing more than a door.


Pieter Bruegel, The Peasant Wedding - Detail
Furnishing

The bride is the tiny figure sitting in front of the green textile wall decoration at the centre of the painting. She has a paper crown hanging above her head and she keeps her hands clasped - as it was customary, the bride was not supposed to eat or to engage in any activity on her wedding feast. She is sided by her mother and another female member of her family, whose face is however hidden behind the light-blue-dressed servant.


Pieter Bruegel, The Peasant Wedding - Detail
The bride

Three figures stand out from the crowd for their different looks: the three men on the right, on the side of the table far from the spectator. The first one, sitting beside the bride's mother on the best chair is the notary, whose presence was needed to legalize the wedding. Beside him is a friar, probably a Franciscan, who is there to give religious officiality to the event. On the extreme right, sitting precariously on an overturned barrel, is a better-dressed man, likely the landowner the newlyweds referred to; he is not only recognizable by his robe but also by the sword he carries.


A dog appears from under the table and tries to snatch the food scraps on an unstable bench.


Pieter Bruegel, The Peasant Wedding - Detail
From left to right: notary, friar and landlord

Where is the groom? While the bride can be easily recognized by her position around the table, the wall decoration behind her and the crown hanging above her head, the groom is not immediately evident. Scholars have speculated a lot over the centuries and endlessly tried to identify the man who got married that day, but no definitive answer can be found. Many are the options: the man pouring beer on the front left, the one sitting on the near side of the table, semi-turned looking at food with a jug in his hand... In Bruegel's time, it was customary for grooms not to sit at the table or even not to partake in the feast until late in the evening so, in fact, there might be no groom in the room.


The "mystery" of the third foot: if we look closely at the two servants in the right front, we see that the one in red seems to have three feet. This detail was so puzzling that even Pieter Bruegel's son would exclude the overnumbered foot in his copy of the painting, thinking it was his father's mistake. However, further studies have demonstrated that the third foot may actually be that of the half-crouch figure sitting on the bench and precariously taking plates from the serving panel.


The Peasant Wedding by Pieter Bruegel - Detail
Circled is the "third foot"


5. SYMBOLISM AND POSSIBLE HIDDEN MEANING


Scholars have always debated about the presence of hidden symbols and moralistic meanings in this work:

Some affirm Bruegel chose to convey a specific message through the painting, sure his peers would have understood it.

Others prefer to believe he was simply recreating a scene he had seen many times and that could interest a curious, middle-class commissioner.


Among those who see the hidden meanings, many think The Peasant Wedding is actually a parody of a wealthy couple's wedding: every single aspect would be the exact reverse of what people could find in a rich man's house, and even the ears of grains would represent the escutcheons of the poor, the symbol of hardship.


Someone has also speculated that the peasant feast could imitate the Wedding at Cana, a Biblical event where Jesus is said to have miraculously turned water into wine and that both Bruegel and his peers would have known well. Simultaneously, he could have wished to show the spectators the effects of gluttony and self-indulgence, perceivable through the greed with which all guests eat and drink, and how fast the religious significance of the wedding can be forgotten. Surely enough, peasants had very few chances to indulge in a hearty feast - we can easily imagine things could quite get out of control.



Where does the truth lie? It's hard to tell for sure. Bruegel was certainly interested in details and symbolism (as was typical of Flemish art) but was also a master of the genre scenes and a great observer and might have even empathised with the peasants he was portraying. Both theories can be true at the same time - perhaps he wished only those who could understand to see the hidden message behind the lively peasant wedding feast he depicted.



6. ARTISTIC AND HISTORIC IMPORTANCE


Artistic Importance: the artistic importance of this painting comes from its author first. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, with his peculiar style and choice of subjects, revolutionized Flemish art and brought it right into Renaissance, forerunning what would be considered the Golden Age of Dutch and Flemish art and making way for the boom of genre and landscape scenes.


Historic Importance: The Peasant Wedding, together with other similar Bruegel works such as The Peasant Dance, brought to us a perfect depiction of their author's time, regardless of the possible hidden meanings they might hold. These genre scenes open an extraordinary window into the life of peasants and in the countryside, usually neglected by chronicles and documents and often forgotten by history itself.



 

⚪READ NEXT: MORE MASTERPIECES OF THE KUNSTHISTORISCHES:



7. WHERE AND HOW TO VISIT





The Peasant Wedding can be seen at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, along with The Hunters in the Snow and The Peasant Dance, the latter probably from the same series.


All three paintings can be found in the Picture Gallery of the Museum, on floor 1, Room X, in the section dedicated to Dutch, Flemish and German painters.


To visit the Kunsthistorisches Museum you will need a ticket: a full price ticket costs 21€, a reduced one 18€ (valid for students), free entry for kids under 19, and there are some other options in case you have specific cards or opt for a combined ticket.


 The Museum is normally closed on Mondays, open Tue-Sun from 10AM to 6PM, and on Thursdays from 10AM to 9PM. From June to August, it is open every day (Mon 10AM - 6PM).


You can find these and other pieces of information here, on the official website of the Museum, where you can also purchase your tickets.





 



References:


Comments


bottom of page