The painting shows a variety of country folk celbrating a wedding by having a midday meal. Most of it is clear enough. One one level it is straightforward, amusing, sympathetic and easy to understand. For instance, right in the foreground, closest to the onlooker , a small girl about three years old sits on the floor eating from a plate with her finger and sucking the finger clean. She is dressed in ugly dark thick Flemish clothes,with plenty of petticoats and sturdy little boots, but she has a gallant peacock feather stuck in her hat because she has been taken to a party. These are simple, decent, people.
The emotional tone of the painting is predominantly peaceful and harmonious. It is occasionally discussed together with Bruegel’s ”Peasant Dance” as though the two paintings expressed a similar spirit, as if Bruegel was doing Norman Rockwell covers for the Saturday Evening Post. That is a mistake. They make a sharp contrast. The dancers are excited, ungainly, rather drunk, their jollification coarse and boorish; even the composition of the group in involved and turbulent. But the ”Wedding” is sedate. It is built on a long smooth diagonal extending right across the picture; the table prolonged by the tray in the immediate foreground. On each side of the table sit the guests, eating and drinking purposefully but in the main quietly. Their arrangement is orderly.
At the extreme right are a man of distinction and a friar; at the extreme left, the humblest villagers, not even at table but gathered outside. No one is drunk. No one is dancing or even smiling. Most of the guests look stodgy but not unpleasant, and of the three faces in the foreground, two are decent, calm and honest. This point is important because some critics commenting on the picture interpret it as a clear denunciation of coarse vices.
C.G. Stridbeck saw the bagpipes as a symbol of Sin, the wooden spoons as a symbol of Gluttony, and the little girl as a greedy guzzler. Without observing the complete difference of ethos, he compared tis calm respectable scene with a contemporary picture of a Beggar’s Banquet in which the ragged guests are voraciously dissecting a roast pig, and a man in the immediate foreground, turning away from the table to face the spectator, is vomiting on the ground. No. There are a few jarring notes in the ”Peasant Wedding” , but in the main the people are quiet and decorous. They may be dull but they are not besotted and vicious. Bruegel portrayed gluttony in a wonderfully comic engraving of a ”Fat Kitchen” ( 1563 ) full of hams and sausages and plump cheeks and bulging bellies; nothing could be less like the ”Peasant Wedding”.
The central problematic of the picture is that although the bride is prominent, as she should be at her wedding, it is not easy to find the bridegroom. Bruegel placed the bride in the middle distance, but signalized her with perfect clarity. He set her head, the only bare head at the table, against a large cloth hung on the wall; emphasized it by hanging a bridal crown above it, and carried the spectator’s eye toward her by the active gesture of the young man distributing food in the foreground. But the bridegroom does not appear to be accentuated in this way, and the experts have always differed about his identity, even about his presence.
Gustav Gluck confessed his own perplexity at the absence. Baron Joseph van der Elst, in ”The last Flowering of the Middle Ages” commented: ” There is an old Flemish proverb: It is a poor man who is not able to be at his own wedding’ , That seems to be gthe case here.” Bruegel oved proverbs, but it is doubtful he would paint such a large and complex picture in order to illustrate such a weak little adage, which is after all a simple hyperbole like ”Its a poor heart that never rejoices”. Besides, it is not a poor man’s wedding. The family may not be rich , but they have ample food and drink and hospitality and can afford to pay two pipers. K.C. Lindsay suggested that the bridegroom is absent because the painting symbolizes ecclesiastical corruption. ”The fleshy Bride, given to the world, conspicuously lacks her bridegroom”. Meaning the peasant girl represents the Church and the absent groom corresponds to Jesus Christ.
Linday’s interpretation is clever, even ingenious, but is only borderline plausibly convincing; mainly because the tranquil mood of the picture does not suggest, at its first or hundred and first viewing, that the painter intended it as a denunciation of a mighty spiritual discord comparable to ”Piers Plowman”
The bridegroom must be in the picture. If we can find him, perhaps reluctant as he may have been to get hitched, we should be able to understand more of his significance. It is worth remembering that Bruegel was never bashful about telling stories in his paintings; in fact the literary and narrative qualities of his work unfolds with as many rich details and any modern novelist. Some of his pictures take as long to read, and are as full of social commentary, as a book by Balzac or the profundity of a Voltaire. Bruegel meant his spectators to study the spiritual meaning both of the details and of the ensemble in each picture.
Bruegel would scarcely have understood why anyone except a student should devote an entire painting to a few apples in a bowl, however distorted and discolored. His intricate narratives were his way of creating movement in a painting, of lifting the work above the limitations of dimensionality inherent in the medium. However, the meaning of his pictures are not known to be platitudes. There is nothing like ”The Gamblers Wife” or ”The Doctor” . His ”Peasant Wedding” is not a nice, simple, E Flat Major ceremony, like Carl Goldmark’s symphony of the same name. Bruegel loved exploring contrasts and developing discords.
”Bruegel’s bride is seated in the midst of the gathering. But where is the groom? That is the mystery of this painting; it has been asked by critics these 400 years. Walter Gibson writes: “Unlike the bride, the groom cannot be readily distinguished, and writers have exercised considerable ingenuity in explaining his supposed absence.”
Several men have been proposed as candidates — the man on the left pouring out beer, or one of the other men serving the food, in keeping with the custom of the time where the husband was supposed to wait upon the wife’s family during the banquet. But why didn’t Bruegel make his particular identity unmistakable? Addressing this question in a seminar presented at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, Aesthetic Realism consultant and artist Dorothy Koppelman said:
“The world,” Eli Siegel [explains], “is the third partner” necessary in any marriage. Bruegel’s ‘Peasant Wedding’ is an exemplification of the Aesthetic Realism idea.” And she said, “The Bruegel ‘Peasant Wedding’ is the wedding of a person to the world.” I believe this is true. And seeing it thrilled me. In one of my first Aesthetic Realism consultations I learned the reason my marriage had ended. My consultants said to me: You thought you could love a person but you didn’t love the world. You didn’t feel the way you saw a person depended on the way you saw the world. … It is thought Bruegel himself is the man in black with the red beard seated at the far right on an upturned washtub, engaged in conversation with a monk.
This intimate, serious conversation between two people is balanced in the composition by the crowd of people streaming in at the door. I think Bruegel’s message is: in order to have the true intimacy and depth of feeling people hope for in marriage, the world in all its variety must be welcomed. I love this painting and I see it as a visual affirmation of what Eli Siegel explains in his lecture “The Furious Aesthetics of Marriage”:You cannot love a person, whether that person is called Ned or Edwina, is called Winnie or Jimmy, is called Edgar or Frieda — you cannot love a person unless you want to love the world, as a large and unlimited fact…. Our purpose, our most constant purpose, the purpose of purposes, and the purpose of purposes of purposes is: To like the world on an exact basis, which is also beautiful.” ( Ruth Oron )