Like any sumptuous wedding, the new “Wedded Bliss” exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem has all the expected elements of a memorable affair: the grand white dress, a lavish, multitiered wedding cake and fabulous jewels.
Curator Paula Bradstreet Richter played planner for “Wedded Bliss: The Marriage of Art and Ceremony,” and the celebration is spectacular.
Guests viewing the 130 items that span cultures and centuries will be wowed by the old and the (relatively) new, the borrowed and the blue (not everyone got married in white).
Fine-art snobs will be pleased to see works by Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso and Winslow Homer, but it will be painter Benjamin West’s miniature self-portrait, one he served up with a wedding proposal – in 1758 or 1759 – that is both impressive and amusing. According to exhibit material, West was rejected. Unrequited love is not an uncommon element here, but the more central focus is, of course, the bride.
There are nearly a dozen dresses – from a stunning strapless Vera Wang ribbon gown from 2004 to a simple cotton dress worn by an African-American slave in 1845.
Plenty of the items have local significance. Cake designer Cile Bellefleur Burbidge spent weeks creating an original architecture fantasy cake for the exhibit. One of the oldest dresses on display is a detailed silk number worn by local Mary Copley Greene, granddaughter of painter John Singleton Copley, on her Big Day in 1837.
A few pieces, such as a Quaker quilt and Navajo basket, appear painfully pedestrian when compared with the breathtaking cameo set from the early 1800s or the wooden corset bust carved by Ebenezer White for his intended in 1782. The biggest wedding crasher is a digital enlargement of an 1895 oil painting depicting Russian Emperor Nicholas II’s wedding. It’s a giant waste of space.
But consider those missteps as wedding day jitters, and instead, relish the fantastic “Bride Fight” full-scale model by E.V. Day. Set in a metal cage, the contemporary artist depicted a mock bridal battle with wire-tethered bits of fabric and lace.
It’s clever and even outrageous, and gives the exhibit a bridezilla component.
“Wedded Bliss: The Marriage of Art and Ceremony,” runs Saturday through Sept. 14 at the Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex St., Salem. For information, call 866-745-1876 or go to pem.org.