The theme of wedding feasts and dances became ‘one of the most popular of all subjects in Flemish painting at the beginning of the seventeenth century’ (G. Marlier, Pierre Brueghel le Jeune, Brussels, 1969, p. 188), regularly featuring in the work of some of the leading artists from the mid-sixteenth century onwards. Though the biographical details of his life remain scarce, Marten van Cleve remains, along with his near contemporary Pieter Bruegel the Elder, one of the most significant of these painters and an enduring influence on succeeding generations of artists. Primarily painting scenes of contemporary life, van Cleve’s oeuvre has been steadily reconstructed over the last few decades. This not only allows for a greater understanding of van Cleve’s artistic personality, but also allows his influence to be appreciated. Several features of his work bear conspicuous stylistic similarities with the hand of Pieter Brueghel the Younger, exemplified by the formal parallels which can be identified in many of the faces of the dancing revellers in the present Wedding Dance.
The composition ultimately derives from a composition by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, surviving in an engraving by Pieter van der Heyden (c. 1525–1569), published after 1570 by Hieronymous Cock, and in a painting at the Detroit Institute of Arts, attributed to Bruegel himself (fig. 1). While the attribution of the once universally accepted Detroit panel has recently been questioned by Klaus Ertz, who suggested that it may be a contemporary copy of a lost original, both it and the print are recognisable as the prototypes for van Cleve’s composition. Van Cleve paid particular attention to the engraving, it appears, when composing the present work and each of the key figure groups, along with the construction of space, finds a close comparison with van der Heyden’s engraving.
While the focus of van Cleve’s picture, and that of the prototypes, remains on the dancing revellers in the foreground, the centre of The Wedding Dance is the bridal group which in both is moved towards the background of the composition. In line with van der Heyden’s engraving, however, it remains somewhat more conspicuous in van Cleve’s painting. The bride is seated before a precariously raised curtain with a bridal crown, or coronal, hung above her head. On a table before her, a pile of coins, presumably her dowry, are laid out and the marriage contract is being signed. As so often the case with contemporary genre scenes of the period, the painting also contains a moralising element, in this case made clear by the comic verses inscribed along the bottom of van der Heyden’s engraving. The bride, the lines inform the viewer, remains seated at her table because she is pregnant (‘sij ghaet vole n soete’, ‘she’s full and sweet’) and therefore cannot join in the revelry.