Lot 1
  • 1

Marten van Cleve the Elder

100,000 - 150,000 GBP
1,061,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Marten van Cleve the Elder
  • An outdoor wedding dance
  • oil on oak panel


In the collection of the family of the present owner for at least 80 years.

Catalogue Note

This hitherto unpublished work by Marten van Cleve the Elder is a striking example of the artist’s independent invention. His erstwhile reputation as a follower of Pieter Bruegel the Elder may be found in the subject matter of this painting, but its style, and the originality and harmony of the composition, indisputably reveals Van Cleve as an autonomous artist through whose inimitable painted innovation the Brueghelian pictorial tradition passed from father to son. In remarkably untouched condition, the present painting is a rare and original treatment of one of the most popular subjects of the 16th century.1

The inspiration for several motifs here would appear to derive from two principal sources: Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Wedding Dance, dated 1566, today in the Detroit Institute of Arts (inv. no. 30.374),2 and a print by Pieter van der Heyden after a design by Bruegel the Elder,3 which Van Cleve himself interpreted in a wonderfully free, unselfconscious drawing.4 The three dancing couples in the foreground of the painting, two of which appear in the Detroit work, relate directly to those in the print, as do the figures of the man embracing a woman on the right, and the couple standing beside the foremost tree. The recently-wedded dancing couple set slightly behind the other pairs of dancers – the bride recognisable by her headdress – is seen in the Detroit painting, unlike in the print, where the bride sits in the background at a table before a canopy, receiving gifts.

In contrast to these sources, however, Van Cleve has created a unique, far more spacious though no less complex, arrangement. Van Cleve has succeeded in making the bride and groom the focal point of the dance, rather than being hidden behind the figures in the foreground, and the opening created through their hands leads the viewer’s eye back into the rest of the scene. As opposed to the Detroit painting, in which the crowds of dancers and other guests fill the entire frame, Van Cleve expands his composition into a more realistic vista, in which the horizon line has been dropped to open out the landscape. The open-air setting, trees, buildings and wagons in the background are all thus brought into equilibrium with the figures in the foreground and those around the marriage table, set at such an angle as to aid the recession of the picture plane. The background view is entirely of the artist’s own devising, elements of which in turn influenced the work of Pieter Brueghel the Younger – the motif of the low table on the grass and several of the figures around it, for instance, is borrowed by the Younger in his own interpretations of the subject.5

This composition is known in two other versions, one listed as in a private collection, Brussels, since 1969,6 and another, now of unknown whereabouts, formerly with the Amsterdam dealer Houthakker in 1934.7 

A tree-ring analysis conducted by Ian Tyers of Dendrochronological Consultancy Ltd shows that the three boards comprising the panel were sourced from the eastern Baltic, the central and lower panels derived from a single tree. Analysis of all three boards indicate a felling date after circa 1559 and a likely usage date from circa 1570 onwards.8

1. For a full discussion of the subject matter, see K. Ertz, Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere (1564–1637/38). Die Gemälde mit Kritischem Œuvrekatalog, Lingen 1988/2000, vol. II, pp. 684–96.
2. See M. Sellink, Bruegel : the complete paintings, drawings and prints, Ghent 2007, pp. 228–29, cat. no. 151, reproduced.
3. See the engraving in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, inv. no. 33.52.29, dated to circa 1570. This print served as the prototype for a number of paintings by both Jan Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Brueghel the Younger, who also produced the same design in the reverse sense, probably after the lost work by his father.
4. Staatliche Museen, Berlin, inv. no. KdZ5541; see K. Ertz and C. Nitze-Ertz, Marten van Cleve 1524–1581. Kritischer katalog der Gemälde und Zeichnungen, Lingen 2014, p. 238, cat. no. Z17, reproduced.
5. See for example, the painting sold in these rooms, 6 December 1995, lot 61.
6. See Ertz 2014, p. 195, cat. no. 127, reproduced.
7. See G. Isarlov, 'L’exposition Brueghel à Amsterdam', in Formes. L’Amour de l’Art, no. 1, January 1934, p. 8, reproduced (as Pieter van der Borcht).
8. Report no. 848. A copy of the report is available upon request and will be supplied to the buyer.