“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.