The Brueg(h)el Phenomenon
By Christina Currie & Dominique Allart
Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage, 2012
This epic, three-volume monograph will likely be seen as a watershed in the study of Bruegel / Breughel works of art. The Bruegel dynasty, begun by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and continued primarily by his son Pieter Brueghel the Younger and then grandson Pieter Brueghel II, has enchanted viewers for hundreds of years. While there have been countless monographs reproducing the Elder Bruegel’s work (and to a much lesser degree, the works of Pieter Brueghel the Younger), technical-stylistic examination of the father and son’s work has not been undertaken until now. This textual inquiry is accompanied by abundant illustrations bring to life the author’s hypothesis about the Brueg(h)el’s work and practices.
The first volume reviews the artistic and cultural milieu in the late sixteenth century in which Bruegel began his career. A review of Bruegel’s work and posthumous fame follow, and while this ground has been well covered in the past, the author bring new insight due to the stylistic focus of their inquiry. Brueghel the Younger’s work is reviewed, along with a review of Brueghel’s likely workshop practices, which continues in the other two volumes. Brueghel the Younger’s long life allowed for a prestigious output of over 1,400 paintings, which necessitated a workshop of significant size.
The meaning of signatures and dates on the works of Bruegel the Elder and Breughel the Younger are discussed in fascinating detail. Why were some works signed, while others were not? Works which are of similar quality are sometimes signed – and sometimes not. Were the signatures and dates on certain paintings placed there on a whim, or did the signatures and dates convey a greater meaning or a sign of quality other than the painterly indications which can be seen today.
The painting technique of Bruegel the Elder is also contained in the first volume. The authors reveal for the first time that Bruegel the Elder was not consistent or uniform in his application of the painting’s underdrawing. The authors conclude that while some underdrawings are “sketchy and searching,” other align more closely to neatly created outlines of the completed painting.
The second volume focused on the painting technique of Brueghel the Younger, and compares a number of paintings by the Elder and Younger. For example, over 125 copies of Winter Landscape with Bird Trap exists, with attribution of some by Brueghel the Younger secured, and others not. Intriguingly, some of the Brueghel the Younger autograph copies have a small hole directly in the center of the painting. Tantalizingly, the authors hypothesized that this relates to the copying practice of Brueghel and his workshop.
The third volume focused on shedding light on Brueghel the Younger’s workshop practice. The author surmise that copying was done by tracing a cartoon. For the firs time, and in-depth discussion occurs around the number and nature of the cartoons used by Brueghel. Because Brueghel painted in a workshop setting, some works reflect greater and lesser degrees of he master’s hand. Determining which works had more or less of the workshop’s influence compared to the master’s direct participation is a central aspect of this volume of the work.
The most revelatory aspect of this volume, and perhaps of the entire work, is the proof, after much previous speculation that neither of the surviving copies of the Fall of Icarus are by the hand of Bruegel the Elder. The authors prove that the copies are by unknown followers, most likely copied after a lost Bruegelian model.
Over the coming weeks I will focus on some of the key aspects of this monograph. I hope that I will be able to convey some of the thrilling discoveries that authors bring to life in this fascinating study.
Book ordering information:
Brepols Publishers, ISBN: 978-2-930054-14-8
Price; 160 Euros / 232 dollars