Lot 52
  • 52

Pieter Brueghel the Younger

400,000 - 600,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Pieter Brueghel the Younger
  • Wedding Dance in the open air
  • signed lower left: ·P· BREVGHEL·
  • oil on oak panel


Anonymous sale ('M. X***'), Brussels, Fiévez, 17–18 May 1923, lot 14;

Joseph de Winter, Antwerp;

His sale, Brussels, Giroux, 12 March 1928, lot 29, where acquired by Professor Jules François, Ghent;

Thence by descent to the present owner.


G. Glück, Das Grosse Bruegel-Werk, Vienna 1951, p. 101;

G. Marlier, Pierre Brueghel Le Jeune, Brussels 1969, p. 191, under note 9, and p. 203, under note 14 (as a partial copy);

K. Ertz, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Lingen 1998–2000, pp. 692 and 729, cat. no. F953, reproduced p. 692, fig. 571 (as Pieter Brueghel the Younger?).

Catalogue Note

Not seen in public since 1928, this painting is a rarity within the œuvre of Pieter Brueghel the Younger. It depicts one of Brueghel’s most popular subjects and compositions, known in at least one hundred versions, thirty-one of which have been attributed to the master himself by Klaus Ertz, the earliest signed and dated 1607, the latest signed and dated 1624.What distinguishes the present painting, however, is its vertical format, which occurs in only one other version – the similarly signed panel, considered a pendant to Brueghel's Peasants breakfast after the wedding, which was with Galerie De Jonckheere in 2005.2 

Thanks to rigorous analysis carried out on this panel by Christina Currie in 2016, a detailed comparison has been made possible between the present work, the De Jonckheere vertical panel, three autograph versions by Brueghel the Younger, and the horizontal painting on copper by Jan Brueghel the Elder.3 This research has revealed both underdrawing and painted execution in the present panel entirely consistent with the other autograph works by the Younger, making this an important addition to the group of fully-attributed paintings, as well as a consistent design throughout all the examples studied, pointing to the likely use of a common cartoon derived from a lost painting or drawing by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

In comparison with the autograph Brussels, ex-Coppée collection and Ghent versions of this composition by Brueghel the Younger (see note 3), the execution of the underdrawing in the present panel, revealed by Infrared Reflectography (see illustration), is highly comparable in style and notation. It is carried out on the dry, broad sweeps of the imprimatura, which the artist often left visible: the scalloped lines for figures’ chins, small areas of hatching used for tone, the full delineation of fingers and knuckles, and in the background, distinctive squiggles for leaves, are all characteristic of the Younger's technique. The build-up of thin paint layers and areas of reserve left for the trees and figures is also entirely typical of his practice. Likewise, the brushwork compares favourably to these other versions: the brush is used to outline and emphasise facial features; short, white impasto strokes are used for highlights; and the leaves are suggested by short lines of slightly flattened zig-zags.

Pieter van der Heyden’s engraving Wedding Dance in the Open Air, marked 'BRVEGEL.INVENT',4 should be considered as a possible inspiration for the design treated by both sons. The present panel, the De Jonckheere version and the painting on copper by Jan Brueghel the Elder are all in the same sense as Van der Heyden’s engraving, which is perhaps indicative of the original orientation of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s design that inspired all these works, though the vast majority of versions by Brueghel the Younger and his Studio are in reverse.

It is not possible to prove beyond doubt which of Bruegel the Elder’s sons may have reproduced the composition first, particularly since the copper plate of Jan’s painting cannot be age-tested, but it would appear most likely that the Younger’s two vertical panels were executed following, and with knowledge of Jan’s version. It is known that Jan faithfully copied several of his father’s paintings in the 1590s, and this Wedding Dance is likely to have been part of that same enterprise. Dendrochronological analysis has revealed that the last annual ring of the present panel dates to 1608. Assuming a minimum growth of eight sapwood rings, this panel could have been in use from circa 1616 onwards, although a date of use in the 1620s is more plausible.5 Most significantly, both the present painting and the vertical De Jonckheere version imitate the colour scheme of Jan’s painting on copper – notably in the blue shot silk jacket of the man dancing, centre left, so characteristic of Jan's work, in contrast to the plain black sleeve found in the other, inversed, horizontal versions by Brueghel the Younger. Whether this colour scheme reflects that of the lost painting by the Elder, however, is a moot point.

Several notable differences in composition between Van der Heyden’s print and the paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Jan Brueghel the Elder suggest that it was not the direct source for the sons' versions, however. (In other cases where Pieter Brueghel the Younger in particular is known to have worked from an original model, such as the Census at Bethlehem for instance, it is clear that he very seldom deviated from the Elder’s design.) Instead, it appears that both artists must have had access to another, now untraced, design by their father, the main figural group of which was transferred by means of a common cartoon. This may have been inherited from the Elder, or made by one of the two sons after a lost painting or drawing, and used by them in both senses.

The likely existence of this cartoon is convincingly borne out by the comparisons carried out by Currie in overlaying tracings of the compositions by Brueghel the Younger and his Studio, and Jan Brueghel the Elder. In all versions for which this comparative method has been possible, including the present panel, a direct correlation has been found between the dancing figures. The background trees, gate, cloth of honour, house and several of the figures at the very back of the compositions, however, are found to differ significantly, implying that these elements were based on a separate drawing or painting, and were more subject to change. For example, in comparing the present work with the vertical De Jonckheere version, the figural group fits perfectly, but the mother and child, upper left, the couple embracing by the house, and the heads of the three figures to the left of the bride, which all appear in the present painting, do not feature in the De Jonckheere painting, and the positions of the gate and trees are also at variance.

The underdrawing is also illuminating in this respect. As is the case in the present painting, in the backgrounds of the versions studied – in those elements which vary from painting to painting – the underdrawing is relatively loose and implicit, in contrast to the detailed and steady drawing that is used to outline the figures, the folds in their drapery and their facial features. The lack of visible hesitation and absence of compositional modifications between the drawing and painting of the figural groups is further evidence for the likely use of a cartoon to transfer this design.

While this vertical panel corresponds in most incidental details to Jan’s copper (the man placing coins into the bridal platter here, for instance, is bald, whereas he boasts a full head of hair in Jan’s version), clearly the most striking difference is Brueghel the Younger’s original and deliberate choice of orientation, not only in his choice of panel, but in the sense of the composition. The verticality has allowed the artist to pay more attention to the landscape, foliage and elongated forms of the trees, unrestricted by the cartoon, while those figures in the horizontal versions which would have been truncated by this narrower format have been carefully omitted to make sense of the altered parameters of the design. In its reversal of the artist's favoured sense of the cartoon, this painting also reflects the Younger's continued sense of invention, creating new variations on an established theme.

A report detailing the aforementioned technical analysis undertaken on this painting, including reproductions of the overlaid comparative tracings, and support for the attribution by Christina Currie, of the Institut Royal du Patrimoine Artistique, Koninklijk Instituut voor het Kunstpatrimonium, Brussels, is available upon request.

1. See Ertz 1998–2000, pp. 722–36, cat. nos 916–1015. At the time of publication, Ertz had not seen this painting in the original and therefore treated it with some caution, while not excluding the possibility that it was by Pieter Brueghel the Younger.

2. Both 50.8 x 35.5 cm., both signed ‘P.BREVGHEL’; see Ertz 1998–2000, pp. 727 and 824, cat. nos 941 and 1119, reproduced figs 569 and 570, pp. 690–91.

3. The research carried out by Christina Currie and Dominique Allart in the case study of the Wedding Dance in the Open Air in their 2012 publication has proved invaluable to the study and support of the attribution of the present work. That analysis compares autograph works by Brueghel the Younger: Brussels, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, inv. no. 8725, signed and dated 1607, 38.5 x 51.5 cm.; the unsigned work formerly in the Coppée-le Hodey collection, Brussels, 41 x 61.4 cm.; Ghent, Museum voor Schone Kunsten, inv. no. 1914 C-J, unsigned, 40.2 x 55.6 cm.; as well as versions which appear to be the work of the studio: Narbonne, Musée des Beaux-Arts, inv. no. 597, signed and dated 1620, 40 x 56 cm.; and a signed copy examined at Galerie de Jonckheere. The horizontal painting on copper, in the opposite sense, by Jan Brueghel the Elder was also studied: Bordeaux, Musée des Beaux-Arts, 40 x 50 cm. See C. Currie and D. Allart, 'Case Study 7: Copies of the Wedding Dance in the Open Air, probably after a lost painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder', in The Brueg[H]el Phenomenon. Paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Pieter Brueghel the Younger with a Special Focus on Technique and Copying Practice, Brussels 2012, pp. 572–613.

4. See the engraving in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, inv. no. 33.52.29, dated circa 1570.

5. Christina Currie's technical study estimates a likely execution date for the panel of 1622 onwards, based on a dendrochronological report carried out by Professor Peter Klein. This information tallies with what we learn from the form of the signature. The spelling of the surname – ‘BREVGHEL’ rather than ‘BRVEGHEL’ – indicates that the painting must have been executed in 1616 or later, since up until that year the Younger had remained faithful to the form of his father’s signature: ‘BRVEGHEL.’ The panel itself has been identified as originating from 'Western German/Netherlandish regions.' This type of wood is consistent with a number of other small and medium-format panels by Brueghel the Younger – larger scale paintings have been found to be executed on wood from the southern Baltic coastal region.