Science illuminates art in Detroits celebration of Bruegels The Wedding Dance

Pieter Bruegel the Elder's The Wedding Dance (1566) Detroit Institute of Arts

To mark the 450th anniversary of Pieter Bruegel the Elders death, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) is showcasing its painting by the Netherlandish master: The Wedding Dance of 1566, acquired in 1930 in a bout of ambitious collecting that helped to vault the museum into world-class ranks.

In an exhibition opening Saturday and stretching across three galleries, the DIA will revisit the story behind the acquisition and deconstruct how the oil-on-panel work was painted, presenting four years of archival research and scientific testing by the museums European art and conservation departments.

The show, titled Bruegels The Wedding Dance Revealed, opens with the acquisition process, which was accompanied by great fanfare. The museums German-born director, Wilhelm R. Valentiner, who led the institution from 1924 to 1945, spent his summers collecting in Europe and spotted the painting in a gallery in London in June of 1930. Telegrams flew across the Atlantic between Valentiner and the Arts Commission, a board appointed by the city of Detroit to oversee the museum, leading to the negotiation of a purchase price of nearly $38,000 covered by municipal funds.

A telegram congratulating Wilhelm R. Valentiner of the Detroit Institute of Arts on the 1930 purchase of The Wedding Dance Detroit Institute of Arts

As a writer observed at the time in Art News, “the retrieving of Bruegels authentic panel is indeed a most lucky occurrence for the art world in general and especially for America and the Detroit Institute of Arts.”

The next gallery features the painting itself, presenting its vivid scene of dancing peasants unframed in a case that allows visitors to view it in the round. This space focuses on a visual analysis of the work based on discoveries by the museums science and imaging labs, including the composition of Bruegels detailed underdrawing. The final gallery focuses on the works creation in 1566, analysing what pigments and brushes were used.

Bruegel's detailed underdrawing for The Wedding Dance Detroit Institute of Arts

The show also revisits a 1941 restoration treatment that removed much of the overpaint that had been applied to The Wedding Dance over the centuries, leading to a surprising but humourous revelation: the codpieces adorning some of the dancing men. Close examination of the paint indicates that a vandal scribbled or scratched lines into the five most pronounced codpieces at some point in the paintings history, following by their being overpainted.

“When they were revealed in 1941, the codpieces were not very welcomed,” says Ellen Hanspach-Bernal, the museums paintings conservator. “We have a lot of letters in our curatorial and registration files where people beg the museum to use the censored version in their publications. Even at the DIA in the 1960s, they were still using reproductions without the codpieces.” The exhibition delves into other details of the 1941 treatment, which left the painting with the abraded but authentic surface for which it is known today.

A newly acquired print by Pieter van der Heyden after Pieter Bruegel the Elders design illustrates the popularity of The Wedding Dance after its creation Detroit Institute of Arts

One of the more intriguing new conclusions of the conservators involves the horizon pictured at the top of the painting, which turns out to have been added by another artist. Tellingly, an underdrawing is missing beneath the paint on this added 2.5in strip of wood, and the pigments are more coarsely ground.

William Suhr, the conservator who treated the painting in 1941, conjectured that the strip was attached in the 19th century. But the museum's testing showed that a specific pigment in this portion, lead tin yellow, fell out of favour in the mid-18th century. As a result, conservators date the added strip to within the first 200 years after Bruegel completed the painting.

“I assume the reason it was added had to do with ideas of taste and what this kind of composition should look like–that it needed a horizon and a proper ending,” says Hanspach-Bernal.

The tests also shed light on Bruegels artistic process, including the spectacularly detailed underdrawing revealed by infrared reflectography (IRR). The artist apparently intended it to be a flexible draft: in the underdrawing, for example, he depicts the bride in the wedding dance with a crown but changes that to a headband in the finished painting.

Bruegel sketched the bride in The Wedding Dance with a crown in his underdrawing, left, but with a headband in the finished painting Detroit Institute of Arts

While Bruegel seems to have stuck with his general composition of the scene, he also makes frequent adjustments to the positioning of hands, legs, feet and hems of the dancing peasants. Superimposing the underdrawing over the finished painting also reveal changes in some of the faces.

“It is a very searching, quick, almost frantic drawing where a lot of things are figured out, but at the same time it is remarkably secure in really transferring this really complex composition,” says Hanspach-Bernal. Lost to history, she notes, are the smaller sketches that Bruegel no doubt worked from in composing the underdrawing.

An analysis of the paintings pigments with X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectography showed that many of the reddish greys or browns in the painting were originally blues that have degraded over time, conservators report. XRF tests of those areas indicated the presence of smalt, a violet blue pigment made by grinding cobalt glass that was popular in the mid-16th century but often turned out to be unstable. The vivid vermilion reds in the painting thus would have been juxtaposed with violet blue, not the dusty brown we see today, creating a more vivid sense of movement, the conservators say.

Images in the exhibition will present hypotheses of how The Wedding Dance appeared when Bruegel completed it. “We actually recreated what we think the blue might have looked like in the painting before it shifted to that brown colour,” says Aaron Steele, an imaging specialist for the DIA.

A composite image showing the paintings current condition in the upper half and a digital simulation of how the blue may have originally appeared in the bottom half.  Detroit Institute of Arts

An analysis by a visiting dendrochronology expert determined Read More – Source