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
A review of: “On the Trail of Bosch and Bruegel: Four Painting United Under Cross-Examination” edited by Erma Hermens, published this year by Archetype Publications Ltd.
This publication brings together a pan-European investigation of four different, yet very similar, paintings in an exhibition titled “Tracing Bosch and Bruegel: Four Paintings Magnified.” The paintings, from the Kadriorg Art Museum, Tallinn, Estonia; The National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen; The University of Glasgow and a Private collection, look similar yet are very different. (You can compare the paintings yourself using the excellent exhibit website: http://www.bosch-bruegel.com/paintings_light.php?painting=compare) This fascinating monograph investigates the paintings from a variety of perspectives including working to answer such questions as which of the four paintings was the original.
Starting with the province of the paintings, chapter 1 reviews the relatively short history of the four works. All are not traceable before than the 20th century. Three of the paintings are similar in size and format, with the Glasgow panel the exception with its portrait format. Virtually unknown before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Tallinn work is the least studied of the works.
Chapter 2 traces the roots of the composition, pointing out that without Max Friedlander’s attribution of the Copenhagen work in 1931 to Bruegel, this series would not be historically attached to him. Where the Copenhagen work (and to some extent the Tallinn version) are very Bruegelesque, the copy in Private hands and the Glasgow version are much more Bosch-like. The author persuasively argues that there is little Bruegel influence on the composition, with it being much indebted to Bosch motifs.
This chapter is a wonderful encapsulation of the mystery of these four paintings. While the Private painting is likely the oldest, dating from the 1530’s, of the three large canvases, it is thought to be the least like the original model. The Copenhagen version, painted some 30 – 40 years later, is probably closer to the original composition. However, the Copenhagen version is not faithful to what was likely the original’s background, with the painting in Tallinn adhering more closely to the background of the original.
Chapter 3 reviews the paintings’ materials and techniques of the studios where the paintings were executed. This chapter is especially engrossing for those coming to the subject for the first time, and features clear writing and fascinating illustrations, including presenting the method for separating a tree in order to make the planks for the paintings. The Private painting has a mark from the lumberjacks who cut down the tree, a rare example of these being visible on the reverse of a completed paintings.
A discussion of the underdrawings and the ground used to prepare the panels for paint is also discussed in this chapter. Regarding the layers of paint, the authors conclude that three of the paintings had similar build up of layers of paint, with the Private painting being the exception due to its simple preparation. Fingerprints were also found in this version and not found on the others.
Dating of the trees used to create the panels of the four paintings is a technique undertaken to assist with determining when the paintings may have been created. This process, called dendrocronology, was used in three of the four works. (Because the Glasgow’s restoration in 1987 introduced balsawood into the frame, it was not possible to attempt to date this work.) The authors note that the Copenhagen version’s planks were drawn from the same tree, which does not occur in the other two paintings. The authors conclude that the Private painting was made 30 years before the Copenhagen and Tallinn versions, within the lifetime of Bruegel but after the death of Bosch.
Chapter 5 examines the underdrawing of the paintings to determine the “handwriting” of the art works. The authors use infrared (IR) imaging techniques, including infrared reflectology to examine the underdrawings. Material used for underdrawings typically consisted of black oil chalk, which provided an outline for the painter(s) to then follow as they applied the layers of paint. It was common in workshops of the 16th century to use a so called “cartoon” or drawing covered in chalk on the reverse side of the image, placed on top of a painting and then traced. However, only the Private and Glasgow version have the characteristic “trembling” of the hand that would indicate the use of a cartoon. The authors conclude that each of the four paintings’ underdrawings as well as final paint layers were all created by different hands, and none of the four are the master model. The authors even question whether a single master model was used, believing it possible that several different version of the painting were circulating among the painters studios over the 30+ years that the works were created. The authors conclude that none of the works were created in the same studio or with the same cartoon. However, they believe that a model was on hand to create the works, given the nearly identical full foreground composition.
The 6th chapter discusses copying for the art market of the 16th century, and reviews the Antwerp art market of the time, which was said to employ twice as many artists as bread makers. Antwerp became a hub for production of copies, which accounted for fully half of the painted art output of the city during this time. There is not consensus among the authors regarding whether the works are a copy after a lost original, or a “phantom copy” (an invention made to look like the work of a popular artist). Because the coloring differs so widely across the four versions, the authors surmise that a drawing or cartoon was used. The author of this chapter concludes that the prototype was closest to the Private version, while as we saw earlier in chapter 2, the author surmised that various aspects of the Copenhagen panel was closest to the original.
In chapter 7 the author argues the case for the paintings following a lost Bosch original, rather than a Bosch 16th century revivalist. The author bases this hypothesis on the iconography of the composition, which is compatible with Bosch’s “system of norms and values.” Bosch used biblical imagery from the past to comment on the Low Countries in the early 16th Century. Like in biblical times, the typically late medieval Dutch town shown in the painting is comprised of the poor, peasants and beggars. Bosch’s lost original compels viewers to “take to heart the word of Christ” to be saved.
This monograph takes the reader on a fascinating detective hunt for the original and earliest version of the painting. For those interested in an investigation of this type within an art-historical context, this will be the perfect summertime read!
The summer auction season is upon us, with Christie’s and Sotheby’s offering stellar works by Brueghel the Younger.
One of most interesting works at auction is the version of “Massacre of the Innocents” at Christie’s. It is interesting for the mystery related to the signature. From the Lot Details:
“The form of the signature on the major versions is considered to be of significance in placing them within the chronologies of Pieter the Elder’s and Pieter the Younger’s oeuvres. The Royal Collection picture is signed ‘BRVEGEL’, which is now accepted as the Elder’s signature; the Vienna version is signed ‘BRVEG’ at the extreme right edge, although the letters ‘EL’ or ‘HEL’ may have been inadvertently trimmed off; a version in Bucharest is signed ‘P. BRVEGEL’. At the time of its sale in Paris in 1979, the present version appears to have born a fragmentary date in addition to the signature, ‘.BRVEGEL. 15..’ (see Campbell, op. cit., p. 15). We are grateful to Christina Currie of KIK/IRPA for noting that the present version is unusual in that it is signed with the signature form of Bruegel the Elder after 1559, ‘.BRVEGEL.’ without an ‘H’ and without the initial ‘P’. No other versions of the Massacre of the Innocents are securely known to be signed in this way; the implications of this for its primacy in the sequence of versions painted by Brueghel the younger remains to be established.”
What happened to the date on the painting? Having the date on the work in 1979 but not present now is mysterious. Was the painting subject to a botched cleaning? Or, did a cleaning reveal that the date was likely false, and was it removed? Hopefully this mystery will be solved soon. Further, it will be very interesting to learn where this version sits in the multiple versions painted by Brueghel.
“Nord on Art” has a great write up of the upcoming Brueghel works at auction:
From June 16 through October 14 2012, the Museum Mayer van den Bergh will host the “Pieter Bruegel Unseen! The Hidden Antwerp Collection” exhibition. For the first time ever, the museum will be displaying some 30 prints by Pieter Bruegel the Elder to the general public.
Curator Manfred Sellink, however, has another surprise in store for visitors…
In late 2011, Sellink, curator of the exhibition, Director of Musea Brugge and for years a researcher of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s body of work, received a photo of a drawing from a private collection. Sellink and Martin Royalton-Kisch, former curator of the British Museum Department of Prints and Drawings, came to the conclusion, after a thorough study, that the landscape drawing belonging to the private collector could indeed be ascribed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Comparisons of the paper type with drawings from the same period and an ultraviolet light test lent weight to their conclusion. For example, it appeared that the newly discovered landscape drawing’s paper was of the same Italian origin as the paper that Bruegel used during his journey to and stay in Italy from 1552 to 1554. In addition, ultraviolet light made traces of a signature visible in the bottom left corner.
The drawing of a mountain landscape with two travellers is the first unknown drawing by Bruegel that has appeared since the 1970s. The landscape drawing has all of the characteristics (composition, image structure and drawing technique) of Bruegel’s self-drawn pieces from the 1552-1555 period (see for comparison the drawings from the British Museum from the same period on the right).
Striking details such as the characteristic way in which the birds are drawn, the manner in which the leaves of the trees are continuously typified by a recurring horizontal “3”, the long parallel shading used to create depth, the manner – as swift as it is accurate – in which the two travellers are shown in the centre, the remarkable way in which the crown of the trees in the background is created using a row of thin strips, the characteristic differences between the foreground’s fluent and sturdy ink-filled pen strokes and the much thinner, more precisely laid-out background… everything points to the drawing being the work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
This recently discovered landscape drawing will be on display for the first time ever in the “Pieter Bruegel Unseen! The Hidden Antwerp Collection” at the Museum Mayer van den Bergh starting on June 16, 2012.
A review of “Pieter Bruegel” by Larry Silver, Abbeville Press, 2011
The images created by Bruegel come thrillingly to life in this Abbeville Press monograph. This handsome volume, written by Larry Silver, Farquhar Professor of Art History at the University of Pennsylvania, puts forward new insights into Bruegel and the time in which he lived. Silver set out to document Bruegel’s output in prints, drawings and paintings by focusing on patterns and areas of interest common to these diverse media. Silver places Bruegel in the social and historical context of his time, as a commentator of the religious and political unrest occurring in the Netherlands during his short lifetime. Silver also includes information not typically found in other Bruegel monographs, documenting the rise of Bruegel scholarship at the end of the nineteenth century, when the new country of Belgium began to look for a native artist to celebrate.
Silver’s first chapter focuses on “Chris Carrying the Cross,” recently made into the fascinating film by Lech Majewski and discussed in a previous blog entry. This chapter is an excellent companion piece to the film, setting Bruegel’s work in the context of Rogier van der Weyden, who lived before Bruegel, as well as Bruegel’s contemporaries such as Joachim Beuckelaer. For Silver, “Christ Carrying the Cross” showcases Bruegel’s range of expression found in his earlier prints, as well as pointing the way to his groundbreaking final paintings, which break with the traditional staging of peasant and religious scenes.
Other chapters cover Bruegel’s life in Antwerp, his prominent patron Nicolaes Jonghelinck and his time with print maker (and future father-in-law) Hieronymus Cock. In a chapter on Bruegel as the “second Bosch,” Silver describes a fascinating transition between the “Bosch” brand, which Bruegel used early in his career, to the “Bruegel” brand, which was not only used by Bruegel but continued by his son and followers for generations.
Silver’s chapters on religion and tradition include an analysis of Bruegel’s ongoing interest in soldiers and weapons, placing Bruegel’s art in the broader context of earlier German images of important battles, such as the Battle of Pavia, which clearly had a significant influence on the artist.
It is inevitable that a Bruegel monograph would include a section on peasant labor and leisure, but Silver manages to put an interesting new spin on this oft covered subject. Building on Alison Stewart’s recent work, Silver shows Bruegel continuing and expanding the tradition of scenes found in German woodcuts. The fascinating scholarly debate between whether Bruegel’s treatment of peasants was sympathetic or moralistically critical is covered well by Silver.
One of the aspects of the monograph that I enjoyed the most was Silver’s careful treatment of lost works by Bruegel that have come down to us through copies by his sons. Silver rightly points out that these lost works deserve robust, careful consideration in the context of original Bruegel’s that survive and should not be discounted as is typical in other Bruegel monographs. Paintings such as “Wedding Procession” and “Visit to a Farmhouse” are two examples where only copies survive, but nevertheless are important components of the Bruegel oeuvre.
The final chapter, which details Bruegel’s legacy, includes an analysis of works by his sons, as well as those who copied or even forged Bruegel’s works. Silver sees this as Bruegel coming to assume a similar status as Bosch, where “Bruegelian” images and themes were adapted and repeated to great commercial success. Silver concludes the monograph by highlighting how no single scholarly consensus has emerged for Bruegel. Rather, he is viewed through the prism of the agendas of scholars who study him.
This monograph is highly recommended.
Years ago, while visiting the National Gallery of Denmark, I was stopped in my tracks as I came across a painting identified as a Bruegel the Elder work. I wasn’t floored so much for the painting’s beauty, but my mouth hung open because I had never seen it or heard of it before. The painting, “Christ Driving the Money-Lenders From the Temple,” was listed in none of my many Bruegel monographs. How could this be? I wondered. How can a museum hang a work and call it “Bruegel” when everyone else in the world doesn’t agree that it is a Bruegel?
Currently a fascinating exhibit covering the painting is underway. Tracing Bosch and Bruegel: Four Paintings Magnified investigates four similar paintings that are done in the Bosch style, which was also emulated by Bruegel in his earlier paintings. The exhibit seeks to answer the questions of who painted the works and when were they painted. Further, how did these four very different paintings of essentially the same scene come to hang in the three galleries and one private collection?
While my specific question regarding the labeling of the Copenhagen painting isn’t answered in the exhibit, it does provide countless other fascinating details. You can learn more about the exhibit at the excellent website: http://www.bosch-bruegel.com. The creators of the website should be applauded at their exceptional work. While I am not likely to see the exhibit in any of the locations to which it travels, I feel as if I have experienced it due to the wealth of information provided on the web. In addition, at least two conferences and a monograph are planned around the exhibitions, with further interesting information certainly to be revealed.
I’ve really enjoyed reading the Twitter feed as the exhibit came together. Hannah Tempest did an excellent job tweeting the process of cleaning and restoration, and providing highly interesting images.
The questions remains – after the exhibit and the Copenhagen painting travels back to the National Gallery – will it still be labeled as “Bruegel?”
I’m interested to hear from folks who have seen the exhibit first hand. What was it like?
At last I was able to travel to a theater showing Lech Majewski’s “The Mill and the Cross.” Bringing to vivid life the 1564 painting “Procession On The Way to Calvary,” from the Kunsthistorische Muesum in Vienna, the film ostensibly allows us into the mind of Bruegel as he prepares to paint the work.
There are many fine reviews of the film that you can find on the web. (I’ve including a few links at the end of this post.) Because of this, I’ll focus my review on the historical accuracy of the film based on what we know of Bruegel and his patron, Nicolaas Jongelinck.
However, first let me say that I greatly enjoyed the film. (How can someone with a blog about Bruegel not find something to like in what is likely the first portrayal of Bruegel on the silver screen?) While it is impossible to know Bruegel’s thoughts while he was composing this painting, “The Mill and the Cross” offers one possible scenario. I found the film less compelling when it focused on Mary and Jesus. The story of the crucifixion has been told countless times on the screen, and I found little that was fresh in this retelling.
– The costumes were very well done and closely mirrored those in the painting, as well as clothes that can be found in other Bruegel paintings.
– While I enjoyed Rutger Hauer’s performance, he is too old to portray Bruegel in 1569, when Bruegel was approximately 35 years old. During the scenes of Bruegel and his wife Mayken Coecke van Aelst, I was pulled out of the film due to the jarring differences of their age and the fact that this does not match the historical record.
– Nicolaas Jongelinck, portrayed by Michael York, was shown in his house in a bustling city (presumably Antwerp) in the film. We know that Jongelinck’s residence in Antwerp was not in the city. Nicolaas’ house, called “‘t Goet ter Beke,” was located just outside the gates of Antwerp It was built by his brother Thomas, and was trasfered to Nicolaas on 22nd November 1554 (1). (It is possible that Jongelinck had another residence in the city, but there is no record of this.)
– The filmmaker did correctly portray Jongelinck owning a “Tower of Babel” painting by Bruegel, which can be seen in the background of several scenes set in Jongelinck’s house. We don’t know if it was the exact painting shown in the film, since Bruegel painted at least two versions of the “Tower of Babel.” The painting shown in the film is housed in the Kunsthistorische Muesum.
– Bruegel had 6 children, 5 boys and 1 girl, in the film. This could be possible if Bruegel had 4 children that did not live into adulthood, since we know that Pieter II and Jan survived him. However, there is no documented evidence regarding the number of Bruegel’s children that did not survive.
While there were some lapses of historical accuracy, the film is an entirely enjoyable exploration of the painting and of Bruegel’s time as we understand it today. We hope that it serves to introduce Bruegel to a new audience of viewers, who will then seek to learn more about the man and his painting.
(1) “The Labours of Hercules, a Lost Series of Paintings by Frans Floris,” The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 107, 1965, PP 114 – 123.
Further reading / reviews of “The Mill and the Cross”
Big news in the Bruegel-sphere this week with new evidence that the famous “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” is indeed not by Bruegel the Elder. The soon to be released publication, The Brueg(H)el phenomenon, from the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK/IRPA) in Brussels, written by Christina Currie and Dominique Allart, puts forward evidence that the painting was painted near the year 1600, decades after Bruegel’s death.
For years scholars have been postulating that this work was not characteristic of Bruegel’s works in several key areas. Manfred Sellink, for example, in his magnificent 2007 monograph “Bruegel: The Complete Paintings, Drawings and Prints,” reviews the history of the attribution question.
The painting has always looked “off” to me. While it was the first Bruegel picture that captured my attention as a 17 year-old student all those year ago, each subsequent viewing of the painting indicated that something was not quite right about it. The most problematic aspect of the painting for me rests in the depiction of the peasant and his horse. The figures do not have the typical heft of Bruegel’s figures. Something about the man and the horse give the impression that they could almost lift off the painting and float into the sky.
The painting is one of the most famous of Bruegel’s works, with W. H. Auden writing an oft-quoted poem about the work.
We look forward to learning more about Currie and Allart’s findings with the release of their research early next year.
Further information here: http://www.codart.nl/news/724/