In the first article in this series, I looked at three famous and disastrous weddings from classical mythology; the second looked at others drawn from literary sources; this third and final article shows some of my favourite paintings of more personal weddings, from the Renaissance to the end of the nineteenth century.
Francesco Francia’s fresco showing Saint Cecilia’s wedding opens a cycle telling the story of her life, which was painted by a team of artists in the entrance to an oratory built onto the church of San Giacomo Maggiore in the centre of Bologna. It was an unusual event by all accounts, not least for the fact that the saint told her husband that he wasn’t to attempt to consummate their marriage.
When Peter Paul Rubens married for the first time, to Isabella Brant in the autumn of 1609, he painted this touching celebration, the Honeysuckle Bower, which was the closest that he could come to the modern wedding photo of bride and groom. Honeysuckle was a well known symbol for faithfulness, and hands laid over one another (“dextrarum iunctio”) have symbolized matrimony since ancient times. Tragically, Isabella was to die of the plague in 1626, when she was only 34.
Weddings in the villages around the fjords of the far south-west of Norway, to the east of Bergen, were very special events. To show this, Hans Gude joined forces with Adolph Tidemand in this marvellous painting of Bridal Journey in Hardanger in 1848. Tidemand’s figures are seamlessly integrated into Gude’s majestic landscape.
Royal weddings merited pageantry of a different form, as shown in William Frith’s painting of the Marriage of the Prince of Wales, 10 March 1863 which he completed in 1865. This took place under the watchful eye of the groom’s mother, Queen Victoria (on the balcony at the upper right), who seems to be attracting as much attention as the wedding in progress below her.
The groom was to become King Edward VII on the death of the Queen; his bride was Alexandra of Denmark, who was only eighteen at the time. The ceremony took place in Saint George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle. By this time, Victoria’s husband Prince Albert had died and she had effectively withdrawn from public life.
Marià Fortuny, whose interest in ceremony and costume has led to him being dubbed a Costumbrist, painted this intricately detailed view of The Spanish Wedding in 1870. The scene is the interior of a sacristy, where a wedding party is going through the administrative procedures of the marriage ceremony. The groom is bent over a table, signing a document, while the bride behind him (holding a fan) is talking to her mother.
The rest of the wedding party waits patiently, but a woman at the back of the small group turns towards a penitent, who stands to the right of the group. He carries an effigy of the soul burning in flames. The wedding party, and a group seated at the right, are shown in richly-patterned dress, as if attending a masked ball. Their detail contrasts with the more painterly rendering of the surroundings.
Then in the late nineteenth century weddings changed forever, when they became the preserve of the photographer.
Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret’s A Wedding at the Photographer’s (1879) comes close to a photographic realism throughout the image. He was calculating in his choice of motif: the wedding market was not one which could be catered for by painters, at least not in the way that photographers were starting to capitalise on it. The image gives the appearance of veracity, and uses subtle signs to make photography appear cheap and nasty compared with painting.
There is an irony in this painting too, in that Dagnan-Bouveret was one of the first painters to incorporate photography into his working methods, later using it in conjunction with more traditional sketches and studies when preparing major works.
A year or two later, Dagnan-Bouveret revisited the wedding theme without the aid of a photographer, in his Blessing of the Young Couple Before Marriage (1880-81). This traditional subject is lit by brilliant sunshine from the right, which almost makes the bride’s dress appear to be on fire.
By coincidence, William Frith also returned to the theme at the same time, in For Better, For Worse from 1881. This is one of his Hogarthian paintings, most definitely not by Royal command, passing comment on contemporary society and its glaring inequality. He contrasts an affluent couple departing for their honeymoon in a hansom cab, with a poor couple and their two children watching at the lower left, a theme which I’m sure the author Charles Dickens would have appreciated had he not died a decade earlier.
My final nineteenth century wedding painting is by another Naturalist, Jean-Eugène Buland, although here being more than a little sentimental and romantic, even populist perhaps. His idyllic Innocent Wedding from 1884 shows a young couple strolling arm in arm through blossom with their home village in the distance.
At least this series now has a happy ending.