Max Ernst’s Robing of the Bride is a famous painting that is surrounded by many mysteries as to its meaning. The reason for this is that Ernst did not fully explain why he depicted the painting’s subjects as humanoid birds. This has led to many different theories that range from the painting displaying the artist’s political views to a depiction of one of his lovers. These theories, however, do not accurately describe the Robing of the Bride. Instead, this painting is the symbolic portrayal of the stages that a bride undertakes throughout marriage.
The first interesting feature of this painting is Ernst’s usage of half bird, half man figures as the paintings subjects. This is a trend that appears in many of Ernst’s works since the early 1920’s. It was during this time that Ernst claimed to be visited by a strange figure known as Loplop. Loplop was a bird like creature who represented the alter ego of Ernst. The bird character also would be used as a presenter in collages. Ernst would draw a form of the creature holding a copy of a work either by Ernst or another artist. Loplop and other birdlike figures also appear multiple times in Ernst’s Surrealist novels. The use of birds as subjects allowed Ernst to portray events that were commonplace in everyday life in an unexpected way.
One such event is marriage, and a key ritualized portion of a wedding ceremony is the preparation of the bride for the day’s events. Ernst sought not only to portray that portion of the ceremony, but the different events that take place throughout a woman’s married life. The main subject of the painting is a half bird, half woman figure with a guard by her side. In the background, there is a painting that depicts the woman in the same stance as that in the foreground. To the right hand side there are two figures as well.
Ernst begins by portraying the bride being dressed in her bridal outfit. The veil has already been placed over her face which is depicted by the bird head. One aspect that is intriguing about this depiction of the bride is the two different colored eyes. The right eye is painted in the same color as much of the veil, but the bride’s left eye is painted in a striking blue that greatly contrasts with the red color used on the rest of the veil. This symbolizes the anxiety that a woman faces with marriage as her mind is split on whether to begin her life as a wife or to run away from it all. The figure to the woman’s left appears to be symbolizing the guarding of the woman’s chastity, but he has failed in his duties due to the arrow that is protruding from the woman’s bridal gown. This aspect portrays the eventual loss of her virgin innocence which is oddly symbolized as well by the gown. The figure of the bride and her guard are riddled with symbolism that portrays the many emotions felt on a wedding day.
The remaining figures in this painting also portray deep messages about a bride’s life. To the right of the main subject is a depiction of the bride during her wedding night. She is posed in a seductive manner with her arms bracing the walls of the entrance. Her veil has been lifted and she becomes fully exposed. The position of the figure’s face suggests that she is in the midst of the throes of passion that accompany the wedding night. The next phase depicted is that which follows the wedding night. This is portrayed by the subject in the lower right corner of the painting. She is enduring the pains of childbirth which have changed her from a beautiful bride to what appears to be a monster. The figure has multiple breasts which symbolize not only her fertility but also that she may already be the mother of other children. She still clings to her bridal gown as a sign of support while enduring through the painful process of labor and birth. The last stage of the Bide features her in an idealized portrait of her wedding day. This symbolizes the preservation of the bride as a member of the family even after her death. It also suggests that the wife is someone special who became immortalized through her struggles. The various stages of a bride’s life are portrayed in a variety of ways by Ernst in the Robing of the Bride.
Max Ernst’s palette also helps to portray the meanings described in the painting. His usage of red for the gown makes it strongly contrast with that of the surrounding figures and background. This immediately draws the viewer into the center figure and allows them to focus on the subject for a period of time. Ernst also depicts his figures in various settings by altering the usage of light in certain areas. By doing so, Ernst was able to show the woman not only as a bride, but also allow the viewer to see the bride on her wedding night. This allows the painter to use a variety of colors in different shades that portray the various characteristics of the light. These effects combine to create a work which palette may at first confuse the viewer, but encourages them to look deeper into the work.
Max Ernst’s Robing of the Bride at first confuses a viewer with its half bird, half man subjects. Ernst uses these subjects to portray the everyday phases in the life of a bride and wife. His portrayal is filled with strong symbolism that tells the story of the joys, fears, and troubles that any woman faces during marriage. The end result is a work that symbolizes the strength of a woman throughout her entire life.
Bischoff, Ulrich. Max Ernst 1891-1976. Koln, Germany: Benedikt Taschen Verlag GmBH, 1994.
Ulfrich Bischoff, Max Ernst 1891-1976 (Koln, Germany: Benedikt Taschen Verlag GmBH), 47.