The Heart Of The Detroit Institute of Arts Is Restored

DETROIT, MICHIGAN Pieter Bruegel’s, “Wedding Dance” from the year 1566 is really one of the great jewels of the Detroit Institute of Arts. This is an amazing piece that was acquired by the DIA in 1930, ( for a sum of $38,000 which is roughly half a million in todays money) and for the first time in a long time you can get the entire story. This classic painting has been fully restored and and is presented in a unique 360 viewing presentation where you can actually walk around the entire piece. This entire painting has been demystified and there is an entire presentation created for the big renovation project. There was a complete examination of the paintngs and drawings beneath the finished work that took four years to complete.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder was a Netherlandish painter from the Northern Netherlands and has left us complex and astounding art. His compositions are intricate and with the, “Wedding Dance” we are able to get a great look at his work in very close detail. There are pencil drawings now exposed just under the thin paint which make up the texture and tone of the finished piece. The new presentation well lit from the front and from the back. What we see at that close perspective is fresh and somewhat fragile. The paint is not gooped on or smeared to create texture but comes off like a guache in some areas. It is delicate and not as robust as it may appear from a good twenty feet off. This surprised me a great deal because I, nor have many people, gotten this close to this classic.


Back in Bruegel’s time there was no such thing as art stores. Grabbing a tube of cobalt blue was something that wouldn’t happen for another two hundred years or so the artists back then had to innovate. By innovating that meant making your own pigments and your own paint. There is a very revealing display of how that process was done and it somewhat alarming. In this modern age we rarely think of how painstaiking it would be to take up such a task. In this case rocks of had to be fired into a state of crystal blue and then ground into pigments. In the case of cobalt blue these pigments were then blended along with oil and made into thick paint.

Getting warm tones like red or cadmium red was a bit of a different process. This involved collecting dead worms and drying them out and grinding them into a powder. Then the powder was added into other mediums to create different hues of paint. These were then used on the final canvases or in this case wooden panels to create the finished art. Now I gravitated to this part of the display first before anything else because it really got my attention. This is something that hasn’t appeared in any of my art books or travels. This was worth the admission of the exhibit alone.

Another great thing about this piece is the back construction of the wooden panels. The finished painting is held together by something called a, “cradle”. This involves wooden slats inter weaved together to create a safe environment for the finished work. Looking at the back of the cradle you can see the thought and concerned that went into it so the work would not buckle or warp. This work has survived the 1500’s to present day and it appears vibrant, and fresh. Taking this all in one sitting is an overwhelming and uplifting experience.


When you go to the exhibit you will be attracted to different things along the way. There is a whole gallery set up about engravings and etchings from artists from around the same time as the, “Wedding Dance”. Some of the museum visitors may chose to skip it but I took it all in. There are a lot of great etchings about angels and biblical scenes. None of this is disappointing and I highly recommend that you go through this gallery as well so you can get the full impact of the whole presentation. They really do go hand in hand.

Take note too of the different telegrams that are going back and forth to one another regarding the Detroit purchase of this piece. This may be the only chance you get to see the full story of what it took to acquire it. There are some great black and white pictures of the conservationists at work restoring the piece to its present state.

Of course when you wrap up your tour make sure you visit the DIA bookstore. There are some great books there for sale including one that costs $200 that got my attention. Inside you will find Bruegels version of the, “Tower of Babel” which I found particularly fascinating. This version has what appears to be tiers, balconies or even roads going around the entire structure. Now did it really look like this? Who knows. I tend to side with the fantastic side of things and give that a hearty YES.

This exhibit will be on display until August 2020.



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