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Dr Amy Orrock, Holburne Museum
5 July 2017
The exhibition Bruegel: Defining a Dynasty ran from February to June 2017 at the Holburne Museum, and enjoyed unprecedented visitor numbers. This is perhaps not surprising - Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525-1569) is a towering presence in the history of art and continues to capture popular imagination today. But he was also the father of a great dynasty of painters, and it was Bruegel’s legacy and this dynasty, which spanned six generations and about 200 years, that were the focus of the Holburne Museum exhibition. Bruegel’s descendants perpetuated his imagery, but they should not be dismissed as ‘copyists’. The relationship of the father to his sons and grandsons is much more subtle than this. Through their paintings we can trace changing fashions, tastes and types of patronage, as well as examples of fresh artistic invention.
Who was Bruegel? Our familiarity with Bruegel’s style today makes him an artist who we feel that we somehow know. This is of course not true: Bruegel the man is an absolute enigma, and remains one of the least documented artists in art history. Bruegel’s surviving body of work is comparatively tiny, and there are no extant sketchbooks, account books or diaries to build up a picture of the artist’s life. Early biographies, such as the one found in Karel Van Mander’s Schilder-boeck (1604) are therefore important sources. Van Mander’s account is anecdotal and somewhat contradictory, but it expresses several key notions about Bruegel: that he was a close observer of the peasants and that his peasant pictures were hugely popular. Bruegel’s revolutionary approach to depicting local life and vernacular culture was illustrated in the exhibition by a comparison between The Adoration of the Kings (1564, National Gallery, London) and a more conventional painting of the same subject by Bruegel’s teacher, Pieter Coecke van Aelst (The Adoration of the Kings, c. 1530, The Royal Collection)
Bruegel the Elder’s sudden death in 1569 left a gap in the market for the type of peasant scenes that he had pioneered. Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564/5-1638/9), his eldest son, readily addressed this demand, producing multiple versions of popular scenes for a broader market. The Holburne Museum’s Peasant Wedding Dance in the Open Air is an example of this type of painting. Previously thought to be by a follower of Pieter Brueghel the Younger, the Holburne painting underwent conservation and technical analysis in preparation for the exhibition, including infrared reflectography, which revealed a detailed underdrawing typical of Brueghel the Younger’s paintings. Our findings established that the painting is a high quality version of this popular composition, attributed to Pieter Brueghel the Younger himself, and the only example of the composition in a UK public collection.
Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Wedding Dance in the Open Air, 1607-1614, oil on panel, Holburne Museum, Bath. Image copyright by kind permission, Holburne Museum, Bath
What might the buyers of these peasant paintings have made of them? An important point to note is that the artists of the Bruegel dynasty produced social pictures, which invited (and continue to invite) discussion and debate. Proverb pictures such as Netherlandish Proverbs and Robbing the Bird’s Nest demonstrate that humour played an important part in teaching moral lessons. This is supported by Van Mander’s statement that ‘One sees few pictures by him [Bruegel] which a spectator can contemplate seriously and without laughing, however straight faced or stately he may be, he has at least to twitch his mouth or smile.’ Delving into Bruegelian iconography we can find numerous examples of playful, erudite, images that invite debate. In prints such as Elck - shown in the exhibition by a pairing of the original drawing with the finished print - Bruegel seems to be criticising the Antwerp merchants who were his patrons, and urging us towards self-knowledge and reflection.
Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Robbing the Bird’s Nest, c.1620, oil on panel
Holburne Museum, Bath. Image copyright by kind permission, Holburne Museum, Bath
Van Mander concludes his biography by telling us that Bruegel left behind two sons ‘who are also good painters’. When we look at their dates we realise a final fascinating fact in the story of the Bruegel dynasty: Bruegel’s sons were aged just one and four when their father died, and yet they went on to produce countless versions of his paintings. Research into the the shared use of preparatory cartoons within the dynasty sheds some light on how they might have achieved this – they might not have been taught their father directly, or had access to many of his original paintings, most of which were in royal collections, but it seems likely that they would have owned some of his working drawings, which could be doctored and used again and again. Van Mander also states that Bruegel’s younger son, Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625), ‘learned to work in watercolours with his grandmother, the widow of Pieter van Aelst.’ Mayken Verhulst (1518-1599) lived into her eighties and was described as a ‘talented miniaturist’. Although no paintings that can be ascribed to her with certainty, her influence can perhaps be felt in Jan Brueghel the Elder’s exquisitely detailed paintings.
Jan also painted peasant scenes, but unlike his father and brother, who both painted mainly on oak panels, Jan often worked on copper, which gave his paintings their distinctive, finely detailed finish and ‘velvet’ luminosity. Jan’s patrons belonged to the upper echelons of society - a frequent collaborator with Rubens, he was also a court artist for the Archdukes Albert and Isabella, who ruled the Netherlands jointly and ushered in a period of peace and prosperity. Jan’s peasant scenes reflect this period in the history of the Netherlands, through an idyllic and swiftly vanishing vision of harmonious local culture.
Like his father, Jan Brueghel was also a highly inventive artist, pioneering the flower piece as a new picture type. The development of this genre was explored in the exhibition by hanging an early example by Jan Brueghel (A Stoneware Vase of Flowers, c. 1607-8, The Fitzwilliam Museum) beside a flower painting by his son, Jan Brueghel the Younger, and a painting by his grandson, Abraham Brueghel. Together these paintings demonstrate an increasingly confident, naturalistic and dramatic approach to flower painting as the genre became established during the seventeenth century. Another of Jan Brueghel the Elder’s grandsons, Jan van Kessel the Elder (1626-1679), shaped the family’s legacy with his unusual insect studies. These miniature works on copper demonstrate the strong ties between art and science in the seventeenth century, and the role of the artist as observer and cataloguer of nature.
With Van Kessel’s meticulous, miniature paintings of insects we seem to have come a long way from the bawdy peasant festivities of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. But remembering Van Mander’s anecdote about how Bruegel would dress up and disguise himself in order to go out among the peasants and observe their behaviour, we can perhaps get closer to the root of what distinguished the Bruegel dynasty: close observation from life, a sense of humour, an insatiable curiosity about the world around them, and a fearless, pioneering commitment to invention that made them among the most exciting artists in history.
Copyright, Dr Amy Orrock, 2017