Today for My Daily Art Display, I return, after too long an absence, to one of my favourite painters, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. I want to look at his painting the Peasant Dance which is not dated but thought to be a companion painting of the same size to Peasant Wedding, which he completed around 1567 and both of which illustrated peasant life. This is an example of his later work which is characterised by his use of monumental Italianate figures. This painting can be found in the Kunsthistoriches Museum Vienna. There is a very similar painting by Bruegel in the Institute of Arts, Detroit which is entitled The Wedding Dance in the Open Air, the main difference between the two is that the Detroit version has more figures in it making it a more crowded scene.
But I start with a poem by the American poet; William Carlos Williams entitled The Dance, which sums up the painting, the setting of which is the village fair (La Kermess).
In Brueghel’s great picture, The Kermess,
the dancers go round, they go round and
around, the squeal and ther blare and the
tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles
tipping their bellies (round as the thick-
sided glasses whose wash they impound)
their hips and their bellies off balance
to turn them. Kicking and rolling about
the Fair Grounds, swinging their butts, those
shanks must be sound to bear up under such
rollicking measures, prance as they dance
in Brueghel’s great picture, The Kermess.
The Peasant Dance, along with Peasant Wedding are thought to be the most outstanding examples of Breugel’s late style and are personified by his use of enormous figures. Bruegel the Elder was well known for his peasant scenes, so much so, he was often referred to as “Peasant Bruegel”. Bruegel specialised in genre paintings which depicted peasants at work and at play. From his paintings we came to understand more about village life of that time and the about the peasants who inhabited them – how they ate, how they dressed, how they hunted and as is the case of today’s painting, how they relaxed and celebrated. He never sentimentalised the life of the peasant folk as they got on with their life and his portraits were a great source of evidence regarding both the physical and social aspects of 16th century life in the Netherlands. Bruegel pioneered the painting of ordinary life and although he was not of “peasant-class”, he would associate with the peasants so as to understand their lifestyle which he then painted.
The picture is about a dance at a fair which is being held in the village square outside an inn. This picture of a dance is in sharp contrast to the paintings featuring the courtly settings of formal dances where everybody is dressed in their finest clothes. Here we see a scene of rural merriment reflecting sixteenth century custom. It is an actual point in the celebrations – the opening of a Kermesse, or village fair with a traditional dance performed by two couples. The large couple in the foreground appear to be hurrying to the dance whilst we observe further back two other couple lost in the joys of the dance. If we look at the house with the banner, to the left side of the background, we can see a man trying to coax (or is it drag!) a reluctant woman towards the dancing.
Bruegel in this painting has once again put a moral slant on what he depicts. This is not just a humorous picture recording village life. Gluttony, lust and anger can all be seen in this painting. Look at the man seated next to the bagpipe player. He looks drunkenly at the bagpipe player trying to offer him a jug of ale. See how he has a peacock feather in his hair. This is symbolic of vanity and pride. Bruegel also draws our attention to the fact that although this is a “saint’s day” he has depicted the dancers having turned their backs on the church and take little notice of the picture of the Virgin which hangs from the tree.
The positioning of the tavern in the foreground and all that is going on around the table clearly shows that the peasants are engrossed with material things rather than spiritual issues. An animated conversation between three men is taking place at the table. One of them stretches out his hand to another on the extreme left but probably due to an excess of alcohol, he knocks his neighbour in the face.
There are two strange figures in the left foreground. They are two small females. I have heard these being described as a mother and child even though the size of the one seated would be completely wrong. However it should be noted that children often dressed like smaller versions of their parents and these could be two children.
Finally this excellent work of art has been the inspiration for Bruegel Belgian Amber Ale from Brewery Van Steenberge. The 5.2 percent alcohol by volume beer has a scene from The Peasant Dance on the label. So you see, Bruegel is still making his mark on today’s society !