“Peasants and Proverbs: Pieter Brueghel the Younger as Moralist and Entrepreneur” – Edited by Robert Wenley, with Essays by Jamie L. Edwards, Ruth Bubb, and Christina Currie. Published to accompany the exhibition at The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham in association with Paul Holberton Publishing.
This volume makes an excellent case regarding why Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s works became popular throughout Europe in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. While Bruegel the Elder’s painted works were primarily in the private collections of the Pope and noble families, his eldest son, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, was producing copies of his father’s compositions for decades. These works were largely bought by middle and upper-class European families, cementing Bruegel/Brueghel’s legacy and furthering the family’s “brand.”
It is rare for a museum exhibition to conduct a deep-dive into a single Brueghel the Younger work, which makes this show (and monograph) especially welcome. The focus is on four works of the same subject, “Two Peasants binding Firewood.” Thought to possibly be a model of a lost painting by Bruegel the Elder, Pieter the Younger painted multiple copies of this work, with four included in this exhibit (three of which are thought to come from Brueghel the Younger and his workshop).
Mysteries surround “Two Peasants binding Firewood.” Why did this subject matter resonate with Europeans at the time? How many versions of the painting were created? How were the copies made? The essays in the monograph seek to answer these questions in fascinating detail.
The book begins with a chapter detailing the life of Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Born in 1564, his famous father, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, died when Pieter the Younger was a young child. Pieter the Younger moved to Antwerp and set up his own independent studio, specializing in reproductions of famous works by his father, as well as original compositions in the Elder Bruegel’s style. Brueghel the Younger was assisted by a rotating group of one or two formal apprentices that entered his workshop every few years. Brueghel the Younger and his assistants produced paintings at high volume throughout his career, with Pieter living a long life, dying in 1637/1638.
The next chapter is Jamie L. Edward’s engaging essay detailing the history of peasants in Bruegel the Elder and Brueghel the Younger’s works. Interestingly, the meaning of the painting at the center of the exhibit, “Two Peasants binding Firewood,” cannot be ascertained with certainty, but can be surmised based on the appearance of similar peasants in other Bruegel works. Of the two peasants prominent in the painting, the tall thin peasant, wearing a bandage around his head, has been identified as a reference to the proverb ‘he has a toothache at someone,’ meaning someone that deceives or is a malingerer. The second peasant, stout and dressed in red pants, represents a stock ‘type’ which can frequently be found in peasant wedding paintings of the time. One likely reading of the painting is that it depicts two peasants who have been caught in the act of stealing firewood.
The chapter by Christina Currie and Ruth Bubb focuses on an analysis of the two other extant rectangular versions of “Two Peasants binding Firewood,” (one from a Belgium private collection and the other at the National Gallery, Prague), comparing them to the version at the Barber Institute. A surprising finding of the dendrochronological analysis of the painting at the Barber Institute found that the tree used to fashion the board used in the painting was cut down between ~1449 and 1481. The authors identify the creator of the panel through a maker’s mark on the reverse of the painting. The panel maker was active from 1589 – c.1621, meaning that the panel was likely painted during this time frame. Interestingly, this means that the tree was stored for well over 100 years before being used by the panel-maker to create the board used by Brueghel the Younger.
Brueghel typically made his works by transferring images via a cartoon to the prepared panel through pouncing, which involved rubbing a small porous bag containing black pigment over holes pricked in an outline of the painting (called a cartoon) onto the prepared blank surface of the panel. The dots that remained were connected via black graphite pencil, and the pigment (dots) wiped away. The paint layer was then placed on top of the underdrawing.
The authors review each of the three rectangular versions, identifying two as autograph versions by Pieter the Younger and his studio. The authors make a compelling case for the version of the painting now in Prague being created outside of Pieter the Younger’s studio. This is due to several reasons, including the lack of underdrawing. The Prague version is also more thickly painted and has relatively crude color-blending in the faces. Some colors in the painting are also different, with light blue rather than pink used for the color of the jacket of the plump peasant.
The final section of the monograph contains the catalog of works in the exhibition. The detailed description and wonderfully-produced images allow the reader to analyze them individually as well as to compare and contrast them. For example, one version of the painting seems to show the thin peasant with his mouth open, showing his few remaining teeth.
Particularly interesting is the smaller, round version of the painting, said to have been painted by Brueghel the Younger later in his career, using free hand, and not a cartoon. This version depicts the two peasants with much smaller heads, in a loose, free-hand manner.
The description of the paintings and their differences is fascinating, with the reader coming away with a good understanding of how the paintings were created and who likely painted them. Readers of the monograph will learn the fascinating history of the Bruegel/Brueghel family along with a compelling explanation regarding how Brueghel the Younger continued and enhanced his family’s reputation in the first part of the 17th century.
Recently we’ve been given the opportunity to examine first hand a very interesting copy of Bruegel’s Children’s Games. The painting is large – 28″ X 39″, seemingly painted on a single panel (or two panels), potentially painted on larch (birch).
Below is the original version from 1560
Below is the copy from ?
What makes this copy so interesting is how it diverges from Bruegel’s original. There are many Children’s games that are missing from the copy, as seen in the illustrations below.
Figures that appear in both versions are in yellow. Those not highlighted are missing from the curious copy:
This blog will document the research done on this painting to ascertain when it was painted, and potentially who painted it.
We love a detective hunt!
A wonderful new exhibition at the Royal Cornwall Museum from September 20 to November 8 2014 explores Bruegel the Elder via art created by Laurence Smith.
From the introduction:
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525-1569) was a Flemish artist who illustrated
people’s everyday lives and the worlds they inhabited. His work is often seen
as being one of the earliest forms of social satire in art history.
In the drawing Nobody and Somebody (1558) the character of Nobody
is shown staring at himself in a mirror, below Bruegel has written the line
“Nobody looks at himself”. Bruegel loved to turn proverbs into pictures and in
doing so held his own mirror up to what he saw as the foolishness of society.
Bruegel was predominantly known for his large, colourful oil paintings of, what
were known as, ‘peasant scenes’. These were commissioned by wealthy
patrons and rarely seen in public. However, many of his drawings were made
into engravings allowing them to be reproduced and seen by a far wider
Laurence Smith has made a study of Bruegel’s little known graphic works and
turned some of these drawings and engravings into oil paintings whilst trying
to mirror the colour and energy of Bruegel’s paintings. Enlarged and vividly
coloured Bruegel’s highly detailed graphic images can now be seen like never
Pieter Bruegel the Elder wanted to hold up a theatrical mirror in order for us to
see our own selves, with all our virtues and vices, reflected back at us.
Paris is home to the only two galleries that specialize in work by the family of Bruegel. For those interested in Brueghel, these galleries are “can’t miss” opportunities. Fortunately, during a visit to Paris earlier this year, I was able to tour both galleries.
Galerie D’Art Saint-Honoré
The Galerie has been in existence since 1984 when it was established by Monika Kruch. I spent a wonderful afternoon with Jérôme Montcouquiol discussing the Galerie and all things Bruegel.
Mr. Montcouquiol discussed with me the recently concluded and very well received exhibit “The Brueghel Dynasty”. The exhibit not only included works from the Galerie, but several private collections contributed works to the exhibit. Included in the exhibit were works from by Jan the Elder, Jan the Younger, Pieter the Younger and others. A highlight of the exhibit, and a work that can be seen in the Gallery, is “The Wedding Feast.” This version differs from many others (and differs from the version painted by Bruegel the Elder) in that two figures can be seen in the loft in the top left portion of the painting.
We spoke about the Galerie’s upcoming exhibition in the Maastricht, Netherlands art fair, where the gallery exhibits each year. Mr. Montcouquiol indicated that they are looking forward to another outstanding show.
The gallery only acquires works of exceptional quality, and strives to showcase works of the Brueghel family as well as major works of other artists of the period.
Galerie De Jonckheere
Paris is one of two locations for Galerie De Jonckheere. This galerie has been catering to Bruegel-related collectors for nearly 40 years. I spent a lovely hour in the Galerie speaking with the staff. The Galerie has had both large scale and more intimate Bruegel-related works, including a wonderful version of the Peasant Wedding Dance by Pieter the Younger (see below). Collectors from North America, Europe and increasingly Russia frequent this gallery to view the latest additions to its collections.
Like many galleries, locating quality Bruegel-related works is difficult in this internet-connected environment. After a new work is acquired, it is reviewed and cleaned to the gallery’s exacting specifications. The works gracing the Galerie’s walls are of the highest standard.
The Galerie has experimented with exhibiting in New York (MANE) as a way to exposure new collectors to its work. This sounds like an ideal way to ensure that new collectors are aware of the magnificence of the Bruegel family.
The Galerie uses its own expertise, with the extensive expertise of Georges and François De Jonckheere, as well as occasionally calling in experts to authenticate works.
In conclusion, both galleries offer outstanding works and are well worth a visit when in Paris. If you aren’t able to visit Paris, the galleries have wonderful websites that can provide a fine view of the current paintings on offer.
Galerie D’Art Saint-Honoré: http://www.art-st-honore.com/en/
De Jonckheere Gallery: http://www.dejonckheere-gallery.com
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
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
Europe: firstname.lastname@example.org – www.brepols.net, North America: email@example.com – www.isdistribution.com
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.