Laurence Smith has conducted interesting research on a “lost” Bruegel work. After viewing a black and white print in “Pierre Bruegel L’Ancien” by Charles de Tolnay (1935) , Smith began doing research on the van der Geest collection that contained the lost work and found a passage in the Phillippe and Francois Roberts-Jones “Pieter Bruegel” (1997) monograph stating:
“ … One of the richest collections in Antwerp in the mid-seventeenth century was that belonging to Peeter Stevens, which contained, besides works by Bruegel, paintings by Van Eyck, Quentin Metsys, Hans Holbein, Rubens, and Van Dyck. A wealthy cloth merchant and city benefactor who gave alms to the poor and was a patron of the arts, he appears in the center of Willem van Haecht’s painting of 1628, The Collection of Cornelis van der Geest. Peeter Stevens also annotated a copy of Van Mander’s Schilder-Boeck with the statement that he had seen twenty-three paintings by Bruegel, of which he possessed a dozen. The catalogue “Of the most renowned Rarities belonging to the late Mr. Peeter Stevens … Which will be sold the thirteenth day of the month of August and the following days of this year 1688, in the House of the deceased” listed: “By Bruegel the elder: A very famous Heath, where peasant men and Women go to market with a cart & a swine, & others”-a lost painting which appears on the left-hand wall in The Collection of Cornelis van der Geest, from whom Stevens had bought it (a drawing with watercolor, in the print room in Munich, also shows the same subject); …”
Was this really a lost Bruegel the Elder painting that now only survives in a watercolor of the collector van der Geest’s paintings?
Smith had the curator of the Rubenshuis Antwerp send him a close up photo of the section of the painting with the Bruegel. The Bruegel is high up on the left hand side and consequently at a steep angle. Smith scanned the photo and attempted to straighten it and pull it into a rectangle. The artist of the watercolor was careful, Smith notes, “to include some detail and seems to have included enough to recognize the wagon and the tree and two or three of the people going to market. The colouring is dark…”
Smith then contacted the print room in Munich and was able to obtain a color print of the watercolor. Smith found that the print had bits of color to distinguish different portions of the print, but it was not very helpful in discerning if the original was by Bruegel the Elder. If the work wasn’t by Bruegel the Elder, could it have been by his son Jan?
Smith studied the work of Jan Brueghel the Elder, and noted that he used the market day subject several times and also included similar images of peasants walking along a path in his other painting. Smith notes that the jug is shown in the watercolor without a hand supporting it, which differs from his other works.
On the question of whether Pieter Bruegel the Elder initiated the design that Jan copied or whether the original in the van de Geest collection should have been attributed to his son, Smith notes that it is impossible to know for certain, but concludes that it appears to be a Jan original rather than that of the elder Bruegel. Based on my knowledge, I would concur with this conclusion as well.
Not only is Smith conducting this type of interesting research, but he also is running an upcoming Bruegel exhibition of a selection of engravings and oil studies. The exhibit, at the Folk Museum at Helston in Cornwall, runs from May 13 – 30, 2013. You can find Smith’s website at http://pieter-bruegel.co.uk