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Bruegel: Defining a Dynasty

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.


This monograph successfully demonstrates that the Bruegel family wasn’t only a painter of dancing peasants. For example, Pieter’s younger brother, Jan Brueghel the Elder, created beautiful still life paintings. Unlike his brother, Jan collaborated extensively with other painters. Over 40 percent of his painted output consists of collaborate works. The friend of Rubens and Van Dyke, Jan the Elder’s works sold for 10 or 20 times the price of his older brother’s works. (A situation that has reversed itself in the late 20th and 21st century, where Pieter’s works sell for many millions while Jan’s works are available at a much lower sum.)

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.)

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