The 450 anniversary of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s death, in 2019, ushered in many exciting projects to commemorate the milestone. Perhaps none as rich and diverse as this conference and accompanying 550-page monograph, which included groundbreaking papers on all aspects of the Bruegel family.
I was fortunate to attend the conference and can happily replace my scribbled notes and crude drawings created when seated in the audience with this exquisite monograph. It is perhaps the most beautifully illustrated Bruegel monograph based on conference papers that I’ve ever seen. Many of the Bruegel paintings reproduced in the monograph were recently cleaned and restored, which the monograph fully captures with large, rich illustrations. Not only are the paintings themselves reproduced, but enlarged details of critical sections of the paintings are featured.
The monograph’s first section includes a series of articles on the newly restored Dulle Griet, done in preparation for the Bruegel exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna in 2018 -19, in conjunction with the Museum Mayer Vanden Bergh in Antwerp, where the painting hangs. The conference brought to light that Dulle Griet was likely transferred from cartoon tracings after Bruegel carefully worked out the picture on other media. The recent cleaning of the panel has uncovered that many of the painting’s pigments have faded or darkened. The cleaning exposed a vital missing feature of the painting, the date of execution of the work. A fascinating essay details a colored drawing of Dulle Griet, housed at the Kunstpalast, Dusseldorf. The drawing helps convey the painting’s original colors which have faded over the years. The analysis of the paper on which the drawing was rendered revealed a watermark from no earlier than 1578, confirming its status as a copy.
The second section of the monograph is devoted to a group of papers related to Pieter Bruegel the Elder and his practices. Groundbreaking scholarship considers Bruegel’s paintings on distemper on lined canvas (Tuchlein), a format which Bruegel was one of the last to utilize. Essays on The Adoration of the Magi (in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Belgium), by Veronique Bucken, provide intriguing details about this format of painting.
Bruegel used a variety of methods to paint his monumental panel paintings. For example, compared to Dulle Griet, the Detroit Wedding Dance, was drawn free hand using an “extensive and vigorous drawing with numerous adjustments to the modeling and shading of the figures, but not the composition as a whole.” Another surprise is the finding that the Wedding Dance was altered from its initial composition size through the addition of a top border. This is discussed in an intriguing paper by Marie Postec and Pascale Fraiture that compares the Detroit version with a little studied copy after Bruegel the Elder in Antwerp.
The third section of the monograph is devoted to Jan Brueghel, son of Pieter the Elder. Several essays review the difference between Jan and his elder brother, Pieter the Younger, in terms of creating copies after their father’s works. Elizabeth Alice Honig’s “Copia, Copying and Painterly Eloquence,” describes Jan Brueghel the Elder and the notion of copia, as articulated for a Renaissance audience by Erasmus in his De Copia. In Uta Neidhardt’s paper, “The Master of the Dresden Landscape with the Continence of Scipio: A Journeyman in the studio of Jan Brueghel the Elder?” identifies two different “hands” working in Jan Brueghel’s studio. The essay is important because so little is known about those painters that worked in proximity to Jan’s studio. The essay remarks on the difficulty in assigning works to specific studio hands. (An issue that was on display just last month, when Christie’s sold a work dated 1608 stamped in copper by “Pieter Brueghel III,” owning to what is undoubtedly a spurious signature.) Larry Silver’s essay “Sibling Rivalry: Jan Brueghel’s Rediscovered Early Crucifixion,” focuses on the difference between Jan the Elder and Pieter the Younger’s treatment of a lost composition of Pieter the Elder. As can be seen frequently in the brother’s work, Jan the Elder creatively re-invents works based on his father’s design, while Pieter the Younger copies his father’s works in a fairly precise manner.
Section four investigates Bruegel’s network and legacies. The question of who painted some of the works after Bruegel the Elder’s untimely death in 1569 and his sons first paintings decades later remains a key mystery yet to be solved. Intriguing essays related to Bruegel’s networks, contracts and connection to homes and studios in Antwerp help put pieces of the puzzle together. Lost works like The Heath allow us to ponder questions of authorship and the number and varieties of copies made (most likely) by non-Brueghels.
The Bruegel “craze” of the early years of the 1600’s and the aftermath of Bruegel’s death is also covered in this section, which details the many ramifications of the aftermath of Bruegel The Elder’s untimely death. The monograph is rife with intriguing aspects of Bruegel’s legacy, including “Peasant Passions: Pieter Bruegel and his Aftermath” (Ethan Matt Kavaler) and “In Search of the Bruegel’s Family Homes and Studios in Antwerp” (Petra Maclot).
The devotion of eight pages to the restored Dulle Griet in an addendum of the monograph speaks to the exquisite care taken to showcase the paintings of Bruegel and his family.
That the quality of the monograph, with all of its finely detailed images, matches the uniformly high quality of the papers within, is a testament to the care that went into creating this handsome volume. It is wonderful that the conference papers are presented in such rich surroundings.
The full table of contents of this stunning monograph is below:
The marvelous Pieter Bruegel the Elder exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum (DIA), interrupted by the Coronavirus, focuses on Bruegel’s celebrated The Wedding Dance, bought in 1930 by then-museum director William Valentnier. The exhibition is the result of many years of research by the DIA team, which uncovered remarkable new information about the painting including:
What makes this exhibit particularly striking is the presentation of the painting in an enclosed glass case, allowing it to be viewed from the back and sides (see photos). This provides the viewer an ability to closely view the thin board on which this masterpiece was painted.
A marvelous companion Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts (Volume 92, number 1, 2019) was published as a companion to the exhibit. Congratulations to the DIA team, including Ellen Hanspach-Bernal, Christina Bisulca, Yao-Fen You, Katherine Campbell, Becca Goodman, Blair Baily and Aaron Steele for a truly fantastic exhibit! (The DIA is scheduled to reopen on June 30, 2020).
A new book puts forward the thesis that Dancing Peasants at a St. Sebastian’s Kermis, long attributed to a follower of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, was in fact painted by the Elder Bruegel. Maximiliaan P.J. Martens, on the Faculty of Arts and Philosophy at the University of Gent, makes this startling claim in Dancing Peasants at a St. Sebastian’s Kermis: A Rediscovered Painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Silvana Editoriale, 2019).
Martens saw the painting in 2016 and recognized the hand of Pieter Bruegel the Elder under multiple layers of old retouching and over paint. Martens makes a compelling case that similar typology of figures, materials and objects in Dancing Peasants at a St. Sebastian’s Kermis are spread throughout Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s oeuvre. He also puts forward the notion that the painting’s style is very similar to the elder Bruegel’s work. Subsequent technical examination and careful cleaning revealed numerous features characteristic of the master’s style and technique, according to Martens
A scientific analysis was conducted on the materials, which, combined with the observation of how they were employed, led Martens to the conclusion that the works was by the hand of the elder Bruegel. The painting is made up of oak quarterly split boards with slanting that is typical of the type that Bruegel employed, which were butt joined with dowels. The panel was prepared with calcite mixed with animal glue and has and has an imprimatur consisting of a brownish ochre hue with lead white and particles of carbon black mixed in, again typical of the elder Bruegel.
Martens notes that the underdrawing is invisible to the naked eye, and even hard to distinguish through infrared reflectography. He concludes that as with a large number of other Bruegel paintings, it was likely traced from a 1:1 cartoon. The tracing was reinforced in a liquid material, likely to be identified as black carbonaceous ink. He notes that pigments that have been identified fits the palette from other paintings by Bruegel. Martens attributes the painting to late in the artist’s career, around 1567–1569.
Martens was not the first to attribute the painting to Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The eminent art historian Max J. Friedländer similarly attributed to Bruegel the elder in the early 20th century.
One area of research not detailed in the monograph is a dendrocronological analysis of the boards used in the paintings. Sotheby’s included an analysis when the work was sold in 2016 and noted:
The latest ring present in the lower plank is sapwood and is datable to 1566. The last rings of the upper two planks are heartwood and are datable to 1562 and 1563. Adding the standard minimum eight years of expected sapwood growth to the last registered ring of heartwood in the upper two planks suggests a usage date of 1571 or after.
Of course, if this analysis is correct, the painting would have been executed after Bruegel the Elder’s death in 1569. We look forward to learning Martens’ dendrocronological analysis, which the author indicated is forthcoming.
The work appeared last at auction in 2016 at Sotheby’s London, selling for £156,250 after an estimate of £80,000 – £120,000. If the attribution to Bruegel the Elder holds, the work will be worth millions, making this one of the greatest returns on investment of an Old Master painting in recent years.
Tags: Brueghel, Bruegel the Elder, Brueghel the Younger, dendrocronology, Max J. Friedländer, Dancing Peasants at a St. Sebastian’s Kermis: A Rediscovered Painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Silvana Editoriale
The new monograph, Bruegel The Master, published by Thames & Hudson, is a highly engaging tour through Pieter Bruegel The Elder’s print and painting oeuvre. Published in conjunction with the recently concluded exhibition in Vienna, the monograph details Bruegel’s corpus of prints and paintings. Best of all, the monograph includes recent research into Bruegel’s painting techniques undertaken in advance of the Vienna exhibition.
Many Bruegel monographs divide his output by format, with separate sections on his prints and paintings. Bruegel The Master instead weaves both print and paintings together in a roughly chronological review of his output, while delving into the fascinating process undertaken by Bruegel to create his masterpieces. The monograph details Bruegel’s painting techniques, which differed greatly between works. For example, his earlier painted works, such as Children’s Games, The Battle Between Carnival and Lent and Christ Carrying the Cross, have precise, mechanical figure contours, suggesting the transfer of image using a cartoon. In contract, Bruegel’s later works, such as his series of the months (which include The Return of the Heard and The Gloomy Day), have loose and sketchy underdrawings. For these later works, Bruegel’s painting process could only have been possible by preparing a precise conception of the painting prior to beginning his work.
One of the biggest revelations in Bruegel the Master is that many of his paintings were cut down from their original size. Such well-known works as The Suicide of Saul, The Tower of Babel, and The Conversion of Saul are specific examples of works that were altered. The reason for their being cut down remains an intriguing mystery yet to be solved.
The monograph is rife with comparisons, using infrared reflectograms, between the final painting and the preparatory under drawing. This analysis draws the reader into the book and asks them to study the images carefully. For example, a corpse visible in the under drawing of Children’s Games is covered by paint in the final paint layer, as are two children lying on the ground in front of a church, which was also overpainted.
Several works were cleaned in preparation for the exhibit. Some of the cleaning, such as for The Suicide of Saul, is dramatically presented in the book, shown mid-cleaning.
There are five additional essays available online that can be unlocked with a code found in the monograph. These essays take a deeper dive into aspects of Bruegel’s art, including Bruegel’s creative process, his painting materials and techniques, and the history of the works now in Vienna.
It would be nearly impossible for those interested in early Renaissance art history not to be thoroughly engaged by this monograph, as it engages readers in both new historical findings and timeless Bruegelian imagery.
This monograph is an indispensable addition to Bruegel art historical literature.
We were fortunate enough to obtain an exclusive preview of the upcoming event, “The Bruegel Success Story,” to be held 12-14 September 2018 in Brussels, Belgium. (http://conf.kikirpa.be/bruegel2018/) This can’t-miss conference kicks off a number of activities celebrating the life and work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who died 450 years ago. We corresponded with one of the conference organizers, Dr. Christina Currie, Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA), who gave us this exciting preview of the conference:
1) What led to focusing on Bruegel and his family for this conference?
The year 2019 is the 450th anniversary of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s death. In Belgium and in Vienna, this is being marked by a series of events that will celebrate his career and his influence on later generations. The Bruegel Success Story conference, organised by the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) in collaboration with the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Belgium, will kick off this season of activities and will give a riveting context for all the subsequent Bruegel themed happenings.
2) What will attendees of the conference learn?
Attendees will be exposed to the very latest in Bruegel research through the eyes of experts from all around the world. Eminent keynote speakers Leen Huet (Belgium), Elizabeth Honig (USA) and Matt Kavaler (Canada) will introduce each of the three days. Over the course of the conference, presentations will cover the life and work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder as well as that of his artistic progeny, including the astonishingly exact replicas of his paintings produced by his elder son Pieter Brueghel the Younger and the exquisite paintings of his younger son Jan Brueghel the Elder. Fascinating new findings on the creative process of Bruegel the Elder as well as that of his dynasty will be presented for the first time, thanks to new high resolution scientific imagery. But the conference does not neglect the essential meaning behind these beautiful works of art. Several speakers will concentrate specifically on the interpretation of Bruegel’s paintings and drawings, which can be quite subversive when seen in an historical context. Interesting new facts about the life, family and homes of the Bruegel family will also be revealed.
3) Who should attend this conference?
The Bruegel Success Story is intended for all art lovers with an interest in Flemish painting and particularly those attracted to Bruegelian themes such as peasant dances, landscapes, proverbs and maniacal scenes. Students of art history, art historians, restorers and collectors should not pass up this opportunity.
3) There are a number of papers focusing on Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting “Dulle Griet.” Why is that painting receiving attention now?
The Dulle Griet, in the collection of the Mayer van den Bergh Museum in Antwerp, has just undergone the most thorough conservation treatment in its recent history. This has brought to light many original features that were previously hidden behind a murky brown varnish and overpaint. The restoration, carried out at the Royal Institute for Cultural Institute in Brussels, was accompanied by in-depth technical examination that resulted in fascinating discoveries about Bruegel the Elder’s creative process. The conference attendees will hear how this great artist conceived, developed and painted this bizarre macabre composition. Leen Huet, one of the keynote speakers and author of a sensational recent biography on Bruegel the Elder, will delve into the hidden meaning behind the Dulle Griet.
4) One of the biggest bombshells in recent years was the revelation in your book (“The Brueg(h)el Phenomenon”) that Bruegel the Elder’s two versions of “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” were not painted by Bruegel the Elder. Will there be similar surprises unveiled at the conference?
I can say that attributions will be debated during the conference. This is always the case when a group of experts on a particular artist or dynasty get together. And it can lead to sparks flying as opinions naturally diverge!
5) There has also been a good deal of investigation into Bruegel’s extended family lately. What will attendees learn about Bruegel’s family at the conference?
Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s paintings were so loved that his son and heir Pieter Brueghel the Younger made his entire career out of producing replicas for an insatiable art market in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. Jan Brueghel, his younger brother, updated the family tradition, branching out into flower paintings, allegories and mythological themes. The next generation produced several renowned painters too, including Abraham Brueghel, who traded on the family name. The paintings of the Bruegel dynasty, as well as those of lesser-known artists working in the Bruegel tradition in the Low Countries and abroad, will feature amongst the exciting new material presented during the conference.
A blockbuster conference containing the latest research on the Bruegel / Brueghel family of painters is being held this fall in Brussels. Many of the leading Bruegel scholars are presenting new findings related to the Bruegel dynasty.
Discoveries related to the Bruegel clan – including patriarch Pieter the Elder, sons Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Jan Brueghel the Elder and other members of the family – will be presented at the symposium. One of the highlights will be presentations related to Pieter Bruegel’s “Dulle Griet,” a painting in Antwerp which has recently undergone extensive investigation, research and cleaning.
The Bruegel / Brueghel clan continues to be top draws at museums and set records at auction (including toping high estimates at this week’s Old Master’s auctions in London).
Registration is open now for this impressive symposium.
More information and registration at http://conf.kikirpa.be/bruegel2018/.
Conference Venue: Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium, Place du Musée, B-1000 Brussels.
12 September 2018, WEDNESDAY
9:00 – 9:45 Registration at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium
9:45 – 10:00 Welcome by Hilde De Clercq, director of the KIK-IRPA and Michel Draguet, director of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium
CHAIR Lieve Watteeuw
10:00 – 10:40 KEYNOTE LECTURE: Leen Huet, The Surprises of Dulle Griet
10:40 – 11:00 Larry Silver, Sibling Rivalry: Jan Brueghel’s Rediscovered Early Crucifixion
11:00 – 11:20 Véronique Bücken, The Adoration of the Kings in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium: Overview and new perspectives
11:20 – 11:30 Discussion
COFFEE BREAK 11:30 – 12:00
CHAIR Dominique Allart
12:00 – 12:20 Yao-Fen You, Ellen Hanspach-Bernal, Christina Bisulca and Aaron Steele, The Afterlife of the Detroit Wedding Dance: Visual Reception, Alterations and Reinterpretation
12:20 – 12:40 Manfred Sellink, Marie Postec and Pascale Fraiture, Dancing with the bride – a little studied copy after Bruegel the Elder
12.40 – 13.00 Mirjam Neumeister and Eva Ortner, Examination of the Brueghel holdings in the Alte Pinakothek/Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich
13:00 – 13:10 Discussion
LUNCH BREAK 13:10 – 14:30
CHAIR Elizabeth Honig
14:30 – 14:50 Amy Orrock, Jan Brueghel the Elder’s Oil Sketches of Animals and Birds: Form, Function and Additions to the Oeuvre
14:50 – 15:10 René Lommez Gomes, Regarding the Character of Each Animal. An essay on form and colour in non-European fauna painted by Jan Brueghel the Elder
15:10 – 15:30 Uta Neidhardt, The Master of the Dresden “Landscape with the Continence of Scipio” – a journeyman in the studio of Jan Brueghel the Elder?
15:30 – 15:40 Discussion
COFFEE BREAK 15:40 – 16:10
CHAIR Bart Fransen
16.10 – 17.10 Christina Currie, Steven Saverwyns, Livia Depuydt, Pascale Fraiture, Jean-Albert Glatigny and Alexia Coudray, Lifting the veil: The Dulle Griet rediscovered through conservation, scientific imagery and analysis
Christina Currie, Steven Saverwyns, Sonja Brink, Dominique Allart, The coloured drawing of the Dulle Griet in the Kunstpalast, Dusseldorf: new findings on its status and dating
Dominique Allart and Christina Currie, Bruegel’s painting technique reappraised through the Dulle Griet
17:10 – 17:20 Discussion
18.00 Opening reception in Brussels Town Hall (Gothic and Marriage rooms)
13 September 2018, THURSDAY
9:00 Doors open
CHAIR Ethan Matt Kavaler
9:30 – 10:10 KEYNOTE LECTURE: Elizabeth Honig, Copia: Jan Brueghel and the Rhetoric and Practice of Abundance
10:10 – 10:30 Yoko Mori, Is Bruegel’s Sleeping Peasant an Image of Caricature?
10:30 – 10:50 Jamie Edwards, Erasmus’s De Copia and Bruegel the Elder’s ‘inverted’ Carrying of the Cross (1564): An ‘abundant style’ in Rhetoric, Literature and Art?
10:50 – 11:00 Discussion
COFFEE BREAK 11:00 – 11:30
CHAIR Leen Huet
11:30 – 11:50 Tine Meganck, Behind Bruegel: how “close viewing” may reveal original ownership
11:50 – 12:10 Annick Born, Behind the scenes in Pieter Bruegel’s success story: the network of the in-laws and their relatives
12:10 – 12:30 Petra Maclot, In Search of the Bruegel’s Homes and Workshops in Antwerp
12:30 – 12:40 Discussion
LUNCH BREAK 12:40 – 14:40
CHAIR Christina Currie
14:40 – 15:00 Lieve Watteeuw, Marina Van Bos, Joris Van Grieken and Maarten Bassens, ‘View on the Street of Messina’, circle of Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Drawing techniques and materials examined
15:00 – 15:20 Maarten Bassens, “Diet wel aenmerct, die siet groot wondere”. Retracing Pieter Bruegel’s printing press(es) by means of a typographical inquiry
15:20 – 15:40 Edward Wouk, Pieter Bruegel’s Subversive Drawings
15:40 – 15:50 Discussion
COFFEE BREAK 15:50 – 16:20
CHAIR Valentine Henderiks
16:20 – 16:40 Jürgen Muller, Pieter Bruegel’s “The Triumph of Death” revisited
16:40 – 17:00 Jan Muylle, A lost painting of Pieter Bruegel, The Hoy
17:00 – 17:20 Hilde Cuvelier, Max J. Friedländer’s perception of Bruegel: Rereading the connoisseur with historical perspective
17:20 – 17:30 Discussion
14 September 2018, FRIDAY
9.00 Doors open
CHAIR Manfred Sellink
9:30 – 10:10 KEYNOTE LECTURE: Ethan Matt Kavaler, Peasant Bruegel and his Aftermath
10:10 – 10:30 Christina Currie and Dominique Allart, The creative process in the Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and creative solutions in two versions by his sons
10:30 – 10:50 Anne Haack Christensen, David Buti, Arie Pappot, Eva de la Fuente Pedersen and Jørgen Wadum, The father, the son, the followers: Six Brueg(h)els in Copenhagen examined
10:50 – 11:00 Discussion
COFFEE BREAK 11:00 – 11:30
CHAIR Dominique Vanwijnsberghe
11:30 – 11:50 Lorne Campbell, Bruegel and Beuckelaer: contacts and contrasts
11:50 – 12:10 Patrick Le Chanu, Pieter Bruegel the Elder and France
12:10 – 12:30 Daan van Heesch, Hercules et simia: the Peculiar Afterlife of Bruegel in Sixteenth-Century Segovia
12:30 – 12:50 Francesco Ruvolo, The Painter and the Prince. Abraham Brueghel and Don Antonio Ruffo. Artistic and cultural relations in Messina from the seventeenth century. With unpublished documents
12:50 – 13:00 Discussion
LUNCH BREAK 13:00 – 14:30
CHAIR Véronique Bücken
14.30 – 14.50 Lucinda Timmermans, Painted ‘teljoren’ by the Bruegel family
14:50 – 15:10 Pascale Fraiture and Ian Tyers, Dendrochronology and the Bruegel dynasty
15:10 – 15:30 Jørgen Wadum and Ingrid Moortgat, An enigmatic panel maker from Antwerp and his supply to the Brueghels
15:30 – 15:50 Ron Spronk, Elke Oberthaler, Sabine Pénot, and Manfred Sellink, with Alice Hoppe Harnoncourt, The Two Towers: Pieter Bruegel’s Tower of Babel panels in Vienna and Rotterdam
15:50 – 16.00 Discussion
16:00 – 16:10 Closing Remarks: Christina Currie and Dominque Allart
Approximately 150 years ago, a Welsh owner of a large format Pieter Brueghel the Younger paining, “Peasant Wedding Dance in a Barn,” was apparently offended by several images in the painting and chopped the painting into several smaller paintings, removing the offending images from the cut section(s).
The 3 remaining sections of the painting, when superimposed on the large painting, can be seen above. What was cut from the painting are images of a dancing man’s codpiece, a man reaching under a woman’s skirt and other images that must have offended the Welsh owner’s sensibilities.
It is a shame that the Welsh owner took the drastic action of hacking the painting into sections to remove the offending images. Other versions of the work included judicious overpainting, which would have removed the offending images without necessitating cutting the panel into pieces.
One of the three fragments of the painting recently came to light through a New York auction. This fragment has wonderful colors and careful modeling of facial features. Judging by the attention to detail (such as the delicate rendering of the thread on the dancer’s shirt), this work seems to have been one of the best of the known 27 versions painted by Brueghel the Younger and his workshop. This painting is likely an autograph work by the hand of Brueghel the Younger (see image below).
The back of the panel has both the Antwerp panel maker’s mark in the shape of the Antwerp castle with two hands above and the clover mark of Michael Claessen, the dean of the Antwerp panel makers and a frequent panel maker to Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Both marks point to a specific date range for the painting. The Antwerp panel maker’s mark was used 1619-1638, and Claessen created panels between 1615-1637. Therefore, Brueghel the Younger must have executed this work after 1616 and before 1637.
Since Pieter Brueghel the Younger typically copied works of his father, it is natural to look for the original work painted by his father. Unfortunately, the original work no longer exists or has not yet been identified.
This blog is on a search for the other 2 fragments of this painting. If anyone knows the whereabouts of them, please contact the editor.
Several weeks ago I wrote about the catalog for the exhibit Bruegel Defining a Dynasty by Amy Orrock. Now, having seen the exhibit firsthand, I can confirm what I suspected after reading the catalog; that the exhibit, presented by outgoing museum director Jennifer Scott, is a marvelous exploration of the Bruegel family brought vividly to life.
Smartly, the exhibit begins with an overview of the Bruegel family tree, showing the relations of family members whose paintings will be viewed in the coming rooms.
A work from the genius at the top of the family tree, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, greets us as we enter the first room. The Adoration of the Kings, 1564, is Bruegel at his finest, a visual feast for the eyes along with not-subtle commentary that reflects how some on-lookers appeared to be more interested in the gifts brought for Christ than the child himself.
One of the exhibition’s aims was to show that Pieter the Elder’s two male children, Pieter the Younger and Jan the Elder, were not simply copyists, but added their own personalities to scenes that their father first painted. Comparing Jan the Elder’s version of The Adoration of the Kings, for example, is a wonderful example of how Jan adjusted and enhanced his father’s composition, by adding elements like a town in the background and details of the dilapidated stable where the scene is set.
The Bruegel exhibit also showcases works painted outside of the family, such as the version of Netherlandish Proverbs included here. This work is intriguing because it omits one fourth of the proverbs found in Bruegel the Elder’s painting. Further, it is much smaller than the copies made by Pieter the Younger and his studio, and does not contain the characteristic underdrawing found in Pieter the Younger’s works. Scientific analysis indicates that it was produced at approximately the same time as the works by Pieter the Younger’s studio in the early seventeenth century. However, this work contains aspects of the completed Bruegel the Elder painting that are not included in Pieter the Younger’s copies. This means that while Bruegel the Younger did not have access to his father’s completed painting, the painter of this work did have access. How non-family members could have accessed the painting is just one of the mysteries discussed in the exhibit.
Family members showed their expertise with other genres such as still lifes, which Jan the Elder and Jan the Younger were undisputed masters. Jan Brueghel the Elder’s grandson, Jan van Kessel, is represented in four small paintings that depict insects set against a light background. The pictures gleam through the copper substructure, with the insects painted in minute detail.
There are many mysteries still to be solved within the family, such as what was Pieter Bruegel III’s role in his father Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s workshop. Exhibits like this one allow us to revel in the depth and breadth of the family’s output, and consider the many mysteries still be examined.
(Bruegel: Defining a Dynasty at the Holburne Museum, Bath, England, February 11 – June 4, 2017 £10 Full Price | £9 concessions | £5 Art Fund, Full Time Student | FREE Entry to under 16s and All Museum Members)
Bruegel: Defining a Dynasty by Amy Orrock (Philip Wilson Publishers, 2017). Published to accompany the exhibition Bruegel: Defining a Dynasty (11 February – 4 June, 2017) at the Holburne Museum, Bath, UK.
Perhaps the best known dynasty in the history of painters, the Bruegel family flourished for nearly 150 years. This book, written in conjunction with an exhibit that showcases the depth and breadth of the Bruegel clan, provides a history of the family along with visually dazzling key works.
The centerpiece of the book is the section that details the attribution of The Wedding Dance in the Open Air to Pieter Brueghel the Younger. The “heavy dancers” depicted in the painting are some of the best known figures of Bruegel’s oeuvre. Yet this painting was originally thought to be a copy by a follower of Brueghel the Younger.
Key to the attribution was the cleaning of the painting. The pre- and post-conservation images portray a drastically different work. Before conservation the work looked like a nocturnal scene, covered in layers of discolored varnish and numerous retouching. The restoration, carried out by Elizabeth Holford, led to a greatly lightened, visually stunning painting.
Christina Currie and Dominique Allart, who wrote the definitive scientific examination of Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s output several years ago, examined the work and secured its attributed to the artist. They studied the painting’s underdrawing, which conformed to paintings typical of Pieter Brueghel the Younger. They concluded that he work “… equals that found in the other versions studied, signifying that it belongs within” the Brueghel the Younger group.
Jan Brueghel the Elder’s grandson, Jan van Kessel, excelled in small paintings of “naturalia,” which mimicked insect and other types of animal specimen that were difficult or impossible to obtain. Highlighted in the book are four small paintings on copper panels that depict native insects against light backgrounds.
This highly recommended book not only provides a wonderful overview of the Bruegel family, but also made me want to immediately rush to the Holburne museum to see the paintings in person. (I will have to wait a few weeks until I am able to do this.)
Bosch and Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life
By Joseph Leo Koerner
Princeton University Press, 2016
Koerner’s beautifully illustrated book focuses on the rise of secular European art after centuries’ of religious-themed works. He chronicles the growth of secular painting, which later became known as “genre painting,” or works which portray everyday European life. Koerner’s thesis is that the transition to secular painting had its roots in Bosch’s depictions of demons and phantasmagoric creatures, which were representations of human weakness and sin (referred to as “enemy painting”). Bruegel’s paintings, 50 years after Bosch, also contained “undesirable” images, but instead of fantastic creatures, Bruegel focused on human foolishness in his depictions of peasants dancing and other imprudent antics.
Koerner constructs a compelling argument for this thesis, which is greatly enhanced by the book’s abundant images from both Bosch and Bruegel’s paintings. Koerner demonstrates that surviving paintings by both artists show a commonality of subjects; demons, fools, and knaves (“gluttons, lazybones, drunkards, dupes, thieves, bullies, charlatans and quacks”). Lost paintings by Bosch also included subjects that are now closely associated with Bruegel, including “peasant dances and peasant weddings, a huge Battle between Carnival and Lent, a Tower of Babylon, a feast of Saint Martin and works on linen of beggars, merrymakers” and others. As Koerner notes, Bosch appears to have painted nearly all of the subjects now typically associated with European genre painting.
Not only was Bosch and Bruegel’s subject matter similar, but the gestalt of the paintings were also parallel. A bird’s-eye point of view is common to both artist’s compositions. In addition, Bosch and Bruegel filled their works with richly detailed, intricate figures. Their paintings overload our senses with characters and figures that seem to stretch far beyond the limits of the physical works. Further to the similarity of the two artist’s paintings, Koerner points out that until fairly recently, major works by Bruegel were attributed to Bosch, including “The Triumph of Death” in the Prado and “The Fall of The Rebel Angels” in Brussels.
Bosch and Bruegel’s painterly styles were similar too, in that both artists allowed the ground paint layer to penetrate the upper paint layer in certain sections, contributing to the final look of the pictures.
Koerner connects the two artists via their patrons as well. Both were sought out by the elite of their day, including high-ranking politicians and famous humanists. Bosch and Bruegel frequently signed their works, which was not typical of artists of this time period (with the exception of Jan van Eyck).
Koerner spends equal time discussing the artist’s differences as well, stating that “no one makes Bosch seem more historically remote than does Bruegel.” With Bosch, the enemy is the Devil and sin, while Bruegel demonstrated that “genuine evil flourishes in the activity of ordinary people.”
The second two-thirds of the book are comprised of detailed sections relating the life and artistic output of first Bosch, then Bruegel. Koerner reviews key works from both artists and how these works fit into the themes of the book. For Bosch, Koerner zeros in on The Garden of Earthly Delights, which to this day continues to baffle viewers trying to “crack the code” of this enigmatic work. In a later chapter Koerner focuses on Bruegel’s The Magpie on the Gallows, tying this work back to Bosch’s heaven and hell imagery, with peasants dancing beneath the gallows.
Koerner convincingly links Bosch and Bruegel together as the originators of “genre scenes” and brings a fresh perspective to both artist’s works, tying them to the larger context of subsequent European paintings. This book is an excellent addition to both Bosch and Bruegel scholarship, leaving the reader with an even greater admiration of these two towering artist’s talents.