Secrets of 'The Wedding Dance' revealed in DIA exhibition

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

In 1566, Pieter Bruegel the Elder completed "The Wedding Dance," an animated depiction of no-holds-barred carousing that was instantly popular and copied -- drunken peasants, bulging codpieces and all. 

To mark the 450th anniversary of the artist's death this year, the Detroit Institute of Arts merged art with science in the new exhibition "Bruegel's 'The Wedding Dance' Revealed." It takes visitors on a deep dive beneath the surface of what may well be the museum's most-valuable piece of art, which it purchased in 1930 for about $38,000 (over half a million today).

Significantly, "The Wedding Dance" is one of just two large Bruegels in the country  -- indeed, just one of 40 known paintings by the Netherlandish master worldwide. 

Pieter Bruegel the Elder's "Wedding Dance" as it appears today at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Over the past several years, DIA imaging specialist Aaron Steele harnessed a range of technologies -- infra-red, ultra-violet, X-ray and high-resolution imaging -- to give the work its most serious physical ever. 

"We also conducted non-destructive analysis of paint pigments," said Ellen Hanspach-Bernal, the museum's conservator of paintings, "and microscopic examination and dendrochronology" -- tree-ring dating to establish the provenance of the wood panel "The Wedding Dance" is painted on. 

The four-year effort produced the most-detailed picture yet of Bruegel's sketch underneath the paint, as well as insight into how certain colors -- in particular his blues -- have degraded over time, all laid out in accessible, interesting explanatory panels in the show. 

Bruegel's 1566 "The Wedding Dance" was so popular, a number of prints were made that imitated it, including this one from Pieter van der Heyden.

It's something of a miracle the museum ever got the painting. The show's first gallery displays a series of urgent, rapid-fire telegrams between the DIA's founding director, Wilhelm Valentiner, and officials in Detroit, underlining how unusual the purchase 89 years ago really was. 

Valentiner was in London at the time, where an art dealer he knew and trusted showed him "The Wedding Dance," adding that he'd give the museum a bargain price if it purchased within one week.

Convinced that this was the actual deal and that the few other known versions were copies -- including one an Antwerp museum bought the year before for far more money -- Valentiner won approval from museum officials and city Arts Commissioners in record time for the extravagant purchase. 

The grid-work "cradle" on the back of Bruegel's "Wedding Dance," likely added in the 19th century, that keeps the oak panel from warping.

It's a good thing. The following year, in response to the economic crisis, the city slashed the DIA's funding for new art.

All in all, however "The Wedding Dance" turned out to be a good investment. During the museum's 2013-2014 bankruptcy, Christie's auction house in New York gave the work a "fair market value" of $100-$200 million.

Its importance, of course, goes well beyond monetary value. As Walter Heil, the museum's curator of European art said at the time of its acquisition, "Years from now, it is probable that the Detroit Institute of Arts will be as famous for this Bruegel as for any painting it owns."

But back to those codpieces.

DIA imaging specialist Aaron Steele documenting "The Wedding Dance" under ultraviolet illumination.

This small but intriguing exhibition also revisits the brouhaha that followed the restoration in 1941 which revealed that odd detail of men's attire popular in the mid-16th century. 

Amusingly, at some point in the 364 years between the work's completion and Valentiner's purchase, some unknown prude painted over the ample bulges, rendering them much more polite.

Even before that happened, other offended souls carved X's over them into the original paint. 

"The scratches suggest the painting was on view at some point," Hanspach-Bernal said, noting that this useful detail helps fill in some of its history, "and somebody got outraged and scratched it."

Intriguingly, she noted the Antwerp copy showed similar signs of attack, and its codpieces were also painted over at some point. 

Infra-red analysis of "The Wedding Dance" revealed the artist's signature, long thought to be missing.

But when a conservator from New York's Frick Collection, William Suhr, removed the overpainting from the DIA's Bruegel in 1941, exposing the impolite pouches in all their glory, the restoration wasn't an immediate hit with the public. 

"We found letters begging the museum to allow them to use the pre-treatment images," Hanspach-Bernal said.

"Because," added Steele, "it would break the moral fibre of youth" if they saw the real thing.

"People still cackle about them today," Hanspach-Bernal said, "but (in the show's explanatory notes) we just wanted to normalize them. They were just fashion at the time."

Added Steel, "Some things in today's fashions might look pretty ridiculous 500 years from now, too."

(313) 222-6021

Twitter: mhodgesartguy 

'Bruegel's "The Wedding Dance" Revealed'

Through Aug. 30

Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward, Detroit 

9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tues.-Thurs; 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun.

Admission free to Macomb, Oakland & Wayne county residents

Others: $14-adults; $9-seniors; $8-college students; $6-kids 6-17

(313) 833-7900