The Detroit Institute of Arts owns many masterpieces, but perhaps none as cherished as Pieter Bruegel's "The Wedding Dance" (1566). The merry peasant scene, with its spirited dancing, drinking and kissing rendered in Bruegel's detailed, wry style, ranks among his best pieces. When Detroit's bankruptcy in 2013 prompted creditors to call for the liquidation of museum holdings purchased with city money—which "The Wedding Dance" was—it merited the highest valuation in the collection: $100 million to $200 million. With as many calls to sell it as to keep it as an emblem of civic pride, it was saved by a "grand bargain" that averted all art sales.
Yet until now, "The Wedding Dance" has hung quietly among other Northern European paintings here, rarely moved or lent (not even for Vienna's blockbuster "Bruegel" a year ago, which gathered some three-quarters of his extant paintings to commemorate his 1569 death).
In December, just before that anniversary year ended, the museum placed the painting at the center of an intimate, illuminating exhibition called "Bruegel's 'The Wedding Dance' Revealed." Stripped of its frame, the painting inhabits a vitrine, allowing visitors to see the front, sides and back, where a wooden cradle was affixed in the late 1800s to prevent warping. Visitors are invited to look closely and to learn what experts have discovered since conservators began cleaning the fragile oil-on-panel painting in 2015.
Green leaves are suddenly brown in the addition.
When this addition was made is unknown. Pigment study suggests that it could have come as late as 1750, when a yellow used in the addition fell out of favor. Nor do we know who changed the painting or why. Here, the exhibition team, led by conservator Ellen Hanspach-Bernal and curator Eve Straussman-Pflanzer, lets visitors speculate: They display a reproduction of the painting without the addition alongside one with it. Clearly, Bruegel's version suggests that the boisterous party extended beyond the painting's borders. Perhaps an owner wanted it toned down.
Bride in drawing, with crown.
Then, as now, conservators did not fill in faded areas—so blues are now brown and a prominent purple shirt is rosy, for example. Smartly, to show visitors how the painting once looked, the exhibition includes a well-preserved copy (Bruegel was widely imitated in his day) painted with more stable pigments.
Bride with red headband.
Conservators detected the use of eight sizes of animal-hair brushes, and examples of them fill a vitrine, along with the eight pigments Bruegel deployed. Asserting the global nature of this provincial picture, didactics explain how the red came from cochineal bugs in the Americas and the smalt blue from cobalt mined in Saxony.
The third gallery documents how "The Wedding Dance" came to Detroit. In the summer of 1930, the museum's renowned director William Valentiner saw it in London. Knowing only that it came from an English country home, Valentiner immediately recognized it as the original and asked the dealer to delay showing it around. Within two weeks—akin to the speed of light for a museum—Valentiner had the funds: £7,400 or about $38,000 (some $600,000 today).
How the painting would have looked without the addition.