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Bruegel the Peasant Painter

Pieter Bruegel has long been labeled ‘the peasant painter,’ and not because of his personal socioeconomic status. It’s because peasant life was a subject to which he returned time and again in his paintings. Case in point is his Peasant Wedding (1567). He did a lot of good ones but I like this one in particular. It’s easy for me to imagine the hardscrabble life of peasants who worked long hours at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy just to meet basic needs. And I love that here we see them set their work aside and enjoy a relaxed social moment. We get a lot more of those kinds of moments today and I wonder if we appreciate them as much.

In 16th century Flanders peasants lived or died by their grain harvests so it’s fitting that grain surrounds them even in their celebration. That room is not a banquet hall, it’s their barn repurposed for the occasion. A massive cache of grain forms the pale yellow wall in the background while the porridge they eat and the beer they drink are both grain products. It’s a subtle statement on how much that commodity permeated their lives. They’re laughing, talking and celebrating encircled by both the object of their daily labor and the fruit of it. That’s very unlike today. We buy food and drink at a store without the same relationship to the process that put them on the shelves. What a different world. The man in black at the far right is the landlord and he’s sitting on an overturned washtub, I guess because they didn’t have enough benches. And isn’t that a goat sniffing out table scraps there? They were never far from the grind of life but they sure look happy.

I also like this painting for the window it gives us to some of their traditions. The girl in front of the green drape is the bride and the paper crown suspended over her head was a common custom. She may have been poor and simple every other day, but on her wedding day she was at least symbolically a royal. And she isn’t eating or drinking, which I understand was also traditional in her time. I didn’t eat much on my wedding day, either, but for very different reasons than social custom. We’ll just leave it at that.

There is so much to see here but I can’t keep going on. Peasant Wedding really is a beautiful glimpse into a forgotten world. Bruegel loved to look for the sacred in everyday life and he certainly found it here.

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