‘Dulle Griet’ restoration answers long-held questions about 450 year-old painting

Summary

The restoration of Antwerp’s famous ‘Dulle Griet’ is complete and has revealed that historians were wrong about the year, the colours and the name of the painting itself

Brand new woman

After 18 months, the restoration of Pieter Bruegel’s famous “Dulle Griet” has been completed, and the results are astonishing – both visually and historically. The removal of centuries of yellowed varnish and overpainting has revealed new information not only about the painting, but about the painter.

“The painting was so dark before that you had to put your nose right up against it to see the details,” Rita Van Dooren of the Museum Mayer van den Bergh told VRT. “Now you have the urge to step back and survey the piece in its entirety.”

One of the world’s most famous paintings, the “Dulle Griet” (“Mad Meg”) hangs in the Museum Mayer van den Bergh in the Meir district of central Antwerp. The 16th-century painting by Bruegel, the leading artist of the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance (and some would argue a Flemish Primitive), contains the artist’s trademark details in a scene brimming with activity and symbolism.

Its title character is an older woman fleeing the scene of pandemonium, a number of utilitarian objects carried in a basket on her arm. Behind her a group of women are pillaging the village, while soldiers try to stop them. Little devils and monsters pepper the painting, while the mouth to hell opens on Dulle Griet’s right.

The painting is thought to refer to proverbs suggesting that women gain their power through demonic ways and that independent women would throw the world into chaos.

Painted two years later

“Dulle Griet” was sent to the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (Kik) in Brussels in early 2017 for study and ultimate restoration. The institute carried out a battery of tests and analysis in order to know how to set about the task of removing old varnish and touch-ups by other painters down through the centuries.

Restorers used several advanced techniques to analyse the layers of the painting, such as infrared photography, electron microscopy and macro-XRF x-ray scanner, a device developed a few years ago by researchers at Antwerp and Delft universities.

This research and the restoration have revealed unknown facts about the painting, such as that it was not painted in 1561, as previously thought, but in 1563. In the world of art history, this is a major find as it throws into question where Bruegel actually painted the work. It is believed that he moved from Antwerp to Brussels in that year following his July wedding, so whether he painted it in Antwerp and took it with him, painting it entirely in Brussels or took the unfinished canvas to Brussels to finish is now a mystery.

It was actually a very colourful work. You see many contrasts of green, blue and purple, which is unusual for the period

- Art restorer Livia Depuydt-Elbaum

For viewers who care less about where as they do about what, “Dulle Griet” now bursts with colour. “The painting was very sober, very brown, before,” Kik restorer Livia Depuydt-Elbaum told VRT. “Now we can see that it was actually a very colourful work. You see many contrasts of green, blue and purple, which is unusual for the period.”

Another crucial find is that it was not Bruegel himself that wrote the word “Dul” (angry) on the panel. It was written later by another painter, meaning that Bruegel himself did not give the painting its now iconic title.

Finally, the work reveals details that were nearly impossible to see before, such as a stuffed toy, details in the soldiers’ helmet and elements of the landscape in the background. The painting’s original depth has also been restored, showing clearly that Griet is larger than the other figures not because she is a giant, as has been suggested, but because she is in the foreground.

Belgians will have to wait a few months before seeing the new “Dulle Griet”. It has been shipped to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna for the opening of the international celebration marking the 450 anniversary of Bruegel’s death. It will return to the Museum Mayer van den Bergh early next year.

Photo: Museum Mayer van den Bergh Antwerpen, photo courtesy Kik-Irpa Brussel

ARTICLE UPDATED ON 23 JANUARY, 2019