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Wine in celebrations and social life

"Le Combat de Carnaval et Carême", Pieter Brueghel l'Ancien, 1559 - Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienne | Fêtes et vie en société | Vie sociale | De boire en savoir-boire | Vin et Peinture | Le Musée Virtuel du Vin


Pieter Brueghel the Elder (ca. 1525-1569) 


Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria



Pieter Brueghel the Elder is considered one of the greatest Flemish ‘genre’ painters of the sixteenth century. Although best known for his scenes of peasant life, he was also a perceptive observer of colorful countryside traditions, drawing on the visionary folklore of Jerome Bosch.


The Fight Between Carnival and Lent symbolises the passing of the ‘fat days’ before Lent. This scene of country mores uses a staged fight to caricature those who are still celebrating Carnival and those who have already started Lent. The fun-lovers are led by Carnival, a fat man sitting on a barrel. On the right, a painfully thin woman embodies the spirit of Lent.

Here, the festival scene is used to represent the comédie humaine. Each of the precisely-placed, colorful figures is part of a microcosm representing the wider world. “It is the combat of two antagonistic cultural and ideological organisations: Festival, which makes life tolerable by the derisory designation of a god to sacrifice; and Austerity, which promises eternal salvation to those who cope with everyday alienation. Bruegel places this scene in a living space, filled with the sounds of nature, games and work, music, laughter, moans and murmurs.” (J. Attali, Bruits [Noise], PUF, 1977). 


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1. The Egg Dance, by Pieter Aertsen, shows an entertainment which was traditional among Dutch peasants during this period. The painter exploits and denounces man’s relationship with earthly pleasures. Food is thrown and trodden into the floor during the raucous entertainment: the dancer has to avoid the flowers strewn across the tiles while leaving the egg intact. Alcohol makes this challenge much harder! Aertsen’s moralistic approach seems to prefigure that of the ‘Golden Age’ of Dutch painting.


2. Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s The Wine of Saint Martin's Day was only discovered in 2010. It represents a village scene of the Feast of St Martin (the 11th November), during which new wine was drunk. This painting brings the number of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s known works to forty-one. The Saint is shown as a noble knight astride a white horse, placed in the bottom right of the painting, who has unsheathed his sword in order to give part of his purple cloak to a shivering beggar. Bruegel contrasts this act of piety with the drinking scene on the left. The contrast is not flattering – men and women, old and young, crowd around the red barrel, pushing and shoving in order to fill a pot or cup. The characters’ faces show greed, lust, anger or intemperance – all cardinal sins. Le Prado described the painting as “a sort of Tower of Babel of wine-drinkers.” The painting is based on the opposition between the saint’s act of charity and the ignominious behavior of the drinkers. This canvas is both a moral lesson and a reminder of elementary virtues.

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1 à 4. Among the “lower orders”, any pretext is good enough to forget the hardships of daily life. This explains why there were so many festivals, more or less religious, corresponding (advantageously) to today’s paid holidays. One painters’ favourite was the Feast of the Epiphany, more commonly known as the Feast of Kings, which commemorated the presentation of the baby Jesus to the Magi.

It was a very popular holiday, thought to be more important than Christmas. While the festival was religious, the galette des rois became a family tradition, an excuse for celebration and therefore wines – see Jacob Jordaens’s The King Drinks, The Feast of the Bean King (also by Jordaens) or Gabriel Metsu’s painting on the same theme.


5. In his numerous paintings of everyday family life, Steen liked to moralise. He did this through references to Scripture, old proverbs, aphorisms and symbolism. Here, the king is shown as a young boy, apparently chosen at random. An old woman is helping him to empty his glass. The woman slumped on the chair seems tipsy.  Her low neckline allows the viewer a glimpse of her breasts. A supposedly faithful wife, does her slightly malicious expression here imply a recent moral lapse? The uncaged bird leads us to suspect this. Even empty, the birdcage is a reminder of the bonds of marriage. The empty cage, also present in Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, symbolises captivity in love, a popular theme among Dutch painters.


6. Steen’s As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young shows a festive family scene: the characters eat, play music, drink, smoke, laugh and shout. This time, the cage holds two birds. The woman holds out her glass for more wine. The wine sparkles; a pitcher sits forgotten on the floor near the woman’s feet. On the right, the father (Steen himself) shows his young son how to smoke a pipe. The song, visible on the old woman’s paper, refers back to an old Flemish proverb which criticises adults who set children a bad example.


7. Steen’s Country Wedding plunges us into another scene of rural feasting – a wedding. The whole village is enjoying the party.


8. Not all Steen’s paintings show wantonness and lust! Here, the message is much more downbeat. At this village fete, two young musicians play for a dancing couple, while other characters flirt, eat, drink wine and smoke and children play under a vine-covered arbour. Despite the apparent frivolity of the scene, Steen uses emblems such as cut flowers, broken eggshells and soap bubbles to remind the viewer of the short-lived nature of earthly pleasures.

The church in the background reminds us that we should live by more durable (Christian) values.



​9. In Garden Party, we move on to an upper-class celebration with music and food. Jan Steen sets the scene in a garden. His allegory of the five senses puts the viewer in the position of the Sense of Sight. The status of this elegant and joyful gathering is shown in the luxurious table settings and relatively subdued behavior of the guests.

The invitees are for the most part well-behaved; some, shown from behind, are wearing sumptuous velveteen coats and feathers in their hats. Wine, music and gallantry are at the heart of the fun.


10. In his Kitchen Scene, David Teniers the Younger takes us behind the scenes. A magnificent pie prepared by the kitchen staff, decorated with a whole swan, draws the eye while large containers of wine wait to be opened.

11. Created in the Middle Ages by the Guild of Butchers, the Fete du Bœuf Gras (Feast of the Fat Cow) would take place during the Paris Carnival, during the ‘fat days’ before Lent. A cow (or fat bull) would be paraded by butcher boys accompanied by a dancing master – here, a young man who is shown playing the pochette, a miniature violin with a long handle. In other corteges, a hurdy gurdy was played. The cow would be killed on Mardi Gras, before Lent began on Ash Wednesday.

The French Revolution put an end to this popular tradition: eyed with suspicion like all parts of the Carnival, the feast was banned in 1790 in the name of public order.

12.  Velázquez painted this picture of Bacchus surrounded by eight drinkers for Philippe IV, who hung it in his summer bedroom. This work is not only unique in its genre, but also stands out in Spanish painting in general because drinking scenes were very rare (unlike in Dutch or Flemish painting). Drunkenness was considered a despicable vice in Spain. The word ‘borracho’ (‘drunk’) was a terrible insult. This work shows harvest workers toasting. It can be interpreted in a number of ways and is still a subject of discussion among art historians. William Sterling (Velázquez and his Works, 1865) described it thus: “With The Drinkers, Velázquez proves that, despite painting princes, he has not forgotten how to paint grotesque figures. This composition of nine life-sized figures shows a vulgar Bacchus, crowned with vine leaves and sitting on a barrel; he places a similar crown on his comrade’s head. The ceremony is carried out with that gravity so typical to drunkards, in the presence of a few peasants affected by the wine to varying degrees. One is seated, lost in sombre meditation; another, his cup well-filled, has just delivered a joke to a third man which provokes a burst of laughter, hence the distortion of his jaw. A fourth figure, slightly behind the others, has drunk to excess like the third; rolling around on a bench, he contemplates the goblet in his hand. In terms of force of character and lively colors, this painting has never been surpassed; the humorous tone of the piece assures Velázquez’s status as The Andalusian Hogarth.”


These peasants are celebrating the end of the harvest and the changing of the season. They are throwing a joyful bacchanal in honor of Bacchus (the Roman name for Dionysus), god of excitement, frenzy and enthusiasm for wine. It seems that Rubens may have inspired Velázquez with his description of a masked ball in honor of the Archduke Albert the Pious and his wife Claire Eugénie, which had taken place in Brussels several years earlier; but the artist may also have had another event in mind: a cavalry procession in Madrid not dissimilar to the painting...


> Découvrez les œuvres dans leur entier en cliquant sur les vignettes

11. In France, billiards, traditionally a nobleman’s pastime, was popularised in the eighteenth century after the installation of tables in public spaces. Vivant Denon confirms that numerous public billiard halls were established during this period. It became a popular game and these ‘academies’ – open at all hours of day or night and frequented by all sorts of people – became convivial drinking spaces especially appreciated by the middle classes. Jean-Baptiste Chardin uses the billiard hall as the setting of his painting The Game of Billiards.


3-4. Hunting, on the other hand, remained the preserve of the noblemen. A pause in the hunt leaves time for François Lemoine’s Hunting Picnic, or François Boucher’s Meal during the Hunt. Standing out from the centre of this composition thanks to the whiteness of his linen, one of the party – disheveled, his gaze unfocussed and a knotted handkerchief on his head – gives us a comic view of the occasion. He holds a bottle of red wine in one hand, the other hand holding out his glass in the same way as two of his colleagues. The fourth hunter slips into a nap. For the Louvre, “the pittoresque gesture of the three raised glasses brings this painting among the best artistic tributes to the ‘divine drink’. This detail, in wine iconography, is only equalled by the leaping cork in Jean-François de Troy’s Oyster Lunch.”

Suggestion : Antonio Vivaldi, Opus 8, Concerto n° 10 in B flat major R. 362 The Hunt (1725), Allegro

5 to 7. The hunting party assembles to dine in the same open-air setting, as illustrated by Carle Van Loo in Halt during the Hunt and Jean-François de Troy in A Hunting Meal. “The table is set fastidiously; the dogs participate in the feast. Carriages and horses are moved away while servants bring chairs from the inn. They take silverware and cold dishes from wicker baskets and set them down on the damask tablecloth. It is not common practice in the eighteenth century to set glasses on the table – they will instead be handed out by servants on demand. ‘French-style’ table service dictates the order of the dishes and the way in which they are served. The many dishes are carried out in successive ‘waves’ or ‘services’. The soup and starter course is followed by that of roast meats and salads, then other savory dishes. The meal is finished with fruit.” Although fine Burgundy wines still reigned supreme in Parisian cellars at this time, sparkling champagne was becoming fashionable among the aristocracy. This divergence can be seen in Van Loo’s painting: red wine may be being served in the background, but in the foreground a black servant carries champagne bottles in a basket.


9. A Picnic (Merienda campestre) by Francisco de Goya is set during the festival of Isidore the Labourer, patron saint of Madrid. Elegantly-dressed youths are shown at the end of their al fresco meal: one of them is drunk, while another, glass in hand, tries to flirt with his neighbour. The playful atmosphere is heating up, and a flirtatious game of blind-man’s-buff is sure to follow!


10. In the Dinner of the Prince of Conti at the Temple, 1766 by Michel Barthélémy Ollivier, “the Prince of Conty is dressed in red, a black ribbon (of the Order of St Michel) around his neck; he takes a bottle in an ice-bucket and leans towards Mme de Boufflers (his mistress) on the right...” Now highly fashionable, champagne appears on the table six years before Romanée reds from the Vosne region; the sparkling wine is already very well-known and much appreciated. Arbiter of good taste, the Prince keeps the wine in reserve for guests at his famous Monday suppers.

Suggestion : Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Concertone for two violins, oboe, cello and orchestra in C major K. 190 (1773), Andantino Grazioso

12. For certain members of the upper class in eighteenth-century London, wine meant port and every evening was a party. These individuals were described as “athletes of liquor”. If they did not fall under the table, they would climb onto it, like the gentlemen of Thomas Rowlandson’s Dinner (1787, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg). Capable of downing three bottles of port in a single evening, they were known as three-bottle men. This was even the admission test of the famous Hellfire Club. Such behavior was not romanticized but rather satirized; Rowlandson’s aggressive and popular style evokes the satirical work of Hogarth. 


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3. The painter, Albert Fourié, was accused of working from a photograph in his studio. But there exists a picture of the painter outside, next to his unfinished piece. This anecdote illustrates the way in which photography was seen as a rival to painting at the time. Further proof of this was the suggestion that Fourie had placed his canvas beneath the trees – a photographic method – in order to better recreate the effect of dappled light falling through the leaves and onto the table. In any case, the painter had a photographer’s concern with capturing fleeting facial expressions and attitudes. (Source: Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen)

6. For this Bastille Day celebration, the painter gathers a whole panoply of rough and ready Parisian characters: workers, craftsmen and domestics, but also the pimps and conmen popularly known as the Apaches.


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3. In Bordeaux between the wars, the Circle of the Good Tuesdays of Charles Cazalet, composed of wine merchants and connoisseurs, dined regularly at Le Majestic. Whilst Le Majestic was known for the quality of its wine cellar, each also brought along their best bottles to share. It was therefore a place for Bordeaux wines, but also others – some people wouldn’t hesitate to bring along a bottle of champagne!


Bruegel Repas de noces KunstGG_1027_Web.jpg

The Peasant Wedding, dating from 1567-69, was one of the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s final paintings. This painting, copied and reproduced countless times, symbolises a shared experience, and is therefore perfect for illustrating the role of wine. In any case, this is the argument put forward by the writers of the excellent Web Gallery of Art. The only problem is that it is not wine that is being served so generously to the wedding guests. In the 16th century, in Flanders as in the north of France, wine was not seen as a cheap, high-calorie workers’ tonic, but rather as the drink of the social elite. Common people drank beer (up to two to four litres per day, per person), even for festive occasions. Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, now home to this magnificent artwork, indicates that this is the case for this country wedding (Cäcilia Bischoff, Masterpieces of the Picture Gallery, A Brief Guide to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna 2010). Ernst Gombrich expresses the same opinion in his unrivalled History of Art. Alexander Wied, a Brueghel specialist, shares the same view.

A final clue: the color and consistency of the liquid being poured are those of beer. It is served generously and the guests pass up their glasses, each having brought his or her own tankard from home. The drink matches the homely food being served: bread, porridge and stew.


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A pictorial technique similar to that of frescoes or miniatures, illuminations were very popular during the Middle Ages. Done by hand, illuminations decorated or illustrated texts, usually on handwritten manuscripts. Until the 12th century, manuscripts were copied out in religious settings, such as abbeys, where they were used to support prayer and meditation. From the 13th century, private artisans began to produce literature for the secular market. This was due to the greater literacy that had resulted from the growing university and administrative sectors.

Find out more: Wine in Illuminations, From Drinking to Savoir-boire >>


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The ‘Muses’ companion’, wine is present across the artistic spectrum, be it in literature, music, decorative or fine arts. Wine is an essential witness to our social and cultural history. Although the Virtual Wine Museum is mainly concerned with painting at present, some examples drawn from other artistic formats permit us to illustrate the universal role of wine, to ‘bear witness’ to it. A few examples of non-painted works on the same theme as this gallery: an antique fresco of the Tomb of the Leopards in the Etruscan necropolis of Tarquinia, in central Italy; a panel from the Bayeux Tapestry inviting us to discover William the Conqueror’s conquest of the English throne and his first banquet with his Norman barons on English soil, the bishop blessing the food and drink; a drinking game featuring Diana with a stag; and, from the painter Pierre Bonnard, a poster presenting champagne as a symbol of celebration, pleasure and joie de vivre.

Discover Wine and the Arts  >>


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