Weddings in Art History

Marc Chagall wedding

Weddings are a cherished and timeless celebration of love and commitment. Within these joyous occasions, there is an undeniable air of celebration and romance that captivates all who attend. Traditionally, weddings symbolized the union of two families, binding them together in a shared journey. However, the lavishness that we associated with modern weddings did not become widespread until the 1980s, a decade marked by the rise of individualism and the iconic wedding of Princess Diana and Prince Charles. After the 80s, weddings became elaborate celebrations that required months of meticulous planning. The splendor of a royal wedding was something that people began to believe all couples deserved.

 

Because weddings are so central to the human experience, they have always been common subjects in art history, offering artists a rich tapestry of emotions, tradition, and opulence to explore on their canvases. Many artists painted wedding scenes to showcase their talent in portraying complex and extravagant moments. The intricacy in these paintings tells a story: the story of love, the story of celebration, or a more solemn story about the loss of independence.

The Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck, 1434

Jan van Eyck was a pioneer of oil painting, creating his work in the 1400s. One of his most controversial pieces, The Arnolfini Portrait, is thought to portray a wedding scene. The painting has been interpreted as a marriage portrait, complete with witnesses and signatures shown in the mirror’s reflection. This theory is not supported by all art historians, as some believe it was a betrothal, not a marriage.

Art histories concede that the painting points to some sort of legal union. The man reaches his hand out to the woman, symbolizing the “handing over” of legal responsibilities to his wife. The man stands next to an open window, symbolizing his connection to the outside world and its commercial connections. The woman stands inside the home, next to the bed, symbolizing her relegation to a life of domesticity. This placement seems to illuminate gender roles within marriages.  The couple may have even been already married, as evidenced by the style of headdress the woman wears. An unmarried woman in this century would have worn her hair down. Regardless of the painting’s uncertain meaning, van Eyck’s technical prowess is demonstrated throughout the piece. His ability to produce texture in the fabrics on the curtains, the realism in the dog’s fur, and the complex iconography throughout the scene is striking.

Jan Van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
The Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck, 1434. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Peasant Wedding, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, ca. 1566-1569

Pieter Bruegel the Elder was one of the most significant painters of the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance, known for his landscapes and peasant scenes. The Peasant Wedding exemplifies the liveliness of a party after a commoner’s wedding ceremony. The bride is not wearing white. Although the white wedding gown was worn by many royals at this time, wearing white did not become a widespread trend for people of all classes until the 1840 wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The bride in Bruegel’s painting wears darker colors. She sits in front of a green curtain in the middle of a large banquet table, demure and separated from all the celebrations taking place around her. A paper crown is hung above her head. Guests pour into the hall as a bagpipe is about to be played. There are so many guests in attendance that a door has been taken off its hinges to be used as a serving table. Per sixteenth-century customs, the groom is not present in this celebration. It is all about the bride. The groom would arrive later in the evening for a separate celebration.

The Peasant Wedding, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, ca. 1566-1569
The Peasant Wedding, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, ca. 1566-1569. Image courtesy of Wikipedia. 

Unequal Marriage, Vasili Pukirev, 1862

This painting shows the other side of marriage ceremonies: an unhappy union. Pukirev openly condemned the commercialization of Russian marriages in the nineteenth century, many of which were between older men and young women.  Allegedly, after viewing the painting, many older grooms refused to marry their young brides. The artist himself left Russia when the painting was placed on exhibition. A theory suggests that Pukirev fell in love with a young woman named Praskovia, who was given away in marriage to a much older man.

   

There is no celebration or glamor in this painting. The church is dark. The subjects are all dressed in black, except the bride who stands out in her white gown. The artist portrays the bride with tenderness and vulnerability. She looks very young and her face appears tear-stained and confused. Several men behind the couple appear curious and amused, perhaps excited for their friend. However, one man in the right corner of the painting stands with his arms crossed, shooting a hateful glare toward the groom. 

The Unequal Marriage, Vasili Pukirev, 1862. Image via Google Arts and Culture courtesy of The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moskva, Russia.
The Unequal Marriage, Vasili Pukirev, 1862. Image via Google Arts and Culture courtesy of The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moskva, Russia.

Wedding in the Photographer’s Studio, Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret, 1879

Lively chatter surrounds a photography studio as a married couple poses for the camera. There are many people, including children, against a wall. However, the couple is the painting’s main focus. The couple is enthralled in newlywed bliss. The bride embraces her groom as he stands next to her. A woman next to her fluffs her dress to perfect her photo.

 

The artist of this painting was fully immersed in the scene of his work, preparing for its completion by visiting a photography studio. He was engaged when he worked on the portrait, perhaps anticipating his upcoming marriage. As one of the leading artists of the French naturalism movement, Dagnan-Bouveret paid attention to each detail of the scene, from facial expressions to the splinters of the worn down floor. At this time, painters were competing with photographers— photography was a new art form that was becoming popular around the world. He portrays the scene with the realism of photography, with the additional advantage of being able to work in color.

Wedding in the Photographer’s Studio, Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret, 1879
Wedding in the Photographer’s Studio, Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret, 1879. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Wedding Register, Edmund Blair Leighton, 1920

As a Pre-Raphaelite painter, Leighton believed that art should be as similar to the real world as possible. Artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries began to move away from the portrayal of mythological, historical, and Biblical scenes, gaining an appreciation for aspects of everyday life.

 

As with many weddings, the focus of this painting is on the bride. The ethereal bride signs the register with a delicate feather pen. Sunlight pours through the windows, illuminating her pale complexion and ivory gown, giving her a heavenly glow. The frame is balanced by those around her: the groom, the officiant, and the couple’s family members. This piece conveys the mundane aspects of a wedding that often go unseen, such as the signing of legal documents and the transfer of wealth. So much of the wedding is built upon the glamor of the ceremony, ignoring the beauty and intimacy of logistical necessities.

The Wedding Register, Edmund Blair Leighton, 1920
The Wedding Register, Edmund Blair Leighton, 1920. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

As demonstrated by this selection of paintings, the bride is typically the focus of weddings. Why are weddings so bride-centric? From a very early age, women fantasize about their wedding. They spend hours preparing and planning each detail, from the ceremony to the dress. They collaborate with female relatives and friends to create a stylistic ceremony that blends fashion, styling, and art. Throughout history, women have had to leave their families and live with their new husbands. Their lives changed overnight. Today, we stand for the bride as she walks down the aisle, admiring her sacrifices of time and comfort. Weddings evoke many emotions, therefore, from celebratory to solemn. These traditions tie us to our ancestors, as weddings are often emotional and grand events, aiming to emulate  all the pomp and circumstance of celebrity and royal weddings that are broadcasted to wide audiences.


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