Dr Wilhelm Mautner (1889–1944), the first documented owner of Pieter Brueghel the Younger's The Peasant Lawyer and Franz Timmermann's The Beheading of St. John the Baptist, was a distinguished Jewish economist and a leading authority on the economics of the world oil industry. After gaining his doctorate at Tübingen University, Dr Mautner lived in Vienna and moved from there to the Netherlands before World War Two. As well as his eminence in the field of economics, Dr Mautner wrote on Old Master painting: on the painter Hendrick Andriessen for Oud Holland in 1934 ("De schilder Hendrick Andriessen ("Mancken Heyn") 1600?-1655") and a more general essay on the unknown Old Masters, "Documentatie, Onbekende Meesters - Onbekende Werken" that appeared in Oud Holland in 1941. Alongside this academic interest in painting, Dr Mautner built up an important collection of Old Masters himself, of which the recently-restituted Brueghel and Timmermann paintings are two fine examples.
Dr Mautner never married and had no children. On the 22nd July 1941, he drew up a will in which he appointed his brother in Ohio in the United States as his sole heir, presumably in the hope – as the United States had not by that stage entered the war – that his estate would not be confiscated, as it would surely be if he left it to his other brother and his sister living in England and it was classified as Feindvermögen (enemy property) by the Nazi occupying forces.
In February 1942, Dr Mautner was ordered to move to Tugelaweg in Amsterdam as a result of the forced relocation of Jews. He sent a large part of his possessions and paintings for safe-keeping with the collector Dr J. van Dongen on the city's Museumplein. The latter kept all of these items until after the war. Other works, including the Brueghel and the Timmermann, were sold under duress in 1943 by Dr Mautner through art dealers in Amsterdam who tried to help him shortly before his deportation. On the 15th December 1943, Dr Mautner was put on transport via Westerbork to Auschwitz, where he died on 29th September 1944.
With Kunsthandel J. Goudstikker, Amsterdam;
Dr. Wilhelm Mautner (1889-1944), The Netherlands;
By whom sold under duress before May 1943 via an intermediary to Walter Kadzik, Vienna;
City of Ludwigshafen-am-Rhein, Germany (acquired from the above);
Recuperated by the Allies in 1945, and returned to The Netherlands;
In 1947 transferred to the Stichting Nederlands Kunstbezit (inv. 1370);
In 1985 transferred to the former's successor, the Rijksdienst Beeldende Kunst (inv. NK2843) by whom placed on extended loan to the Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht from 1991;
Restituted to the heirs of Dr Wilhelm Mautner in 2010.
This was one of the most popular of Pieter Brueghel the Younger's compositions. Over ninety versions survive, of which at least a quarter can firmly be assigned to Pieter Brueghel the Younger himself. The vast majority of these however are on Brueghel's standard small scale panel size, measuring circa 55 by 88 cm. The Mautner painting is one of only three securely attributed versions painted on Brueghel's larger standard panel size of circa 75-79 by 123-26 cm.1 The other two versions are in private collections, and all three pictures are dated: 1615, 1616, and (this one) 1618.2 The numerous small-format works that are dated start in 1616 and run into the 1620s. Brueghel generally used standard sized panels in his workshop because the designs were transferred using tracings, as under-drawing, revealed in an infra-red mosaic, indicates (see fig. 1), but a sole much larger scale work, signed and dated 1617, on a panel measuring 115 by 187 cm., was correctly judged by Ertz to be autograph on the basis of a photograph taken of it in 1937, when it was last heard of.3
It is Brueghel's multi-figured compositions that benefit particularly from the large scale format and this is particularly evident here. Its well-preserved painted surface is unusually vibrant, and Brueghel's love of incident and delight in the textures of objects is rarely so evident. The scale brings out the delightful element of caricature in this picture, and it would be fascinating to view it, an outstanding example of Brueghel's most caricatural of compositions, in the context of the long tradition of caricature in European art. In this respect it reads easily as a startlingly modern work, its figures reminding us of those that Daumier or Grosz poked fun at in their work. It is not only the way it is painted that is pointedly humorous. The subject has traditionally been called "Rent Day", and latterly "Tax-Collector's Office" but more recent scholarship has identified it as a ramshackle village lawyer's office strewn with papers.4 This identification is supported by documents from as early as 1627, when the inventory of Antoinette Wiael's collection describing a panel painting of a French lawyer "een franschen procureur" by the younger Brueghel.5 The lawyer seated behind his desk wears a traditional lawyers' cap. His clerk sits inside the door. Peasants come to pay for his services with produce, some crowding forward competing for attention, a bending woman trying to assemble her offers of produce, a nervous old man to the left seems to hide behind his cap, another fellow, sneaking through the door seems to be spying on the scene, which becomes a narrative presented in theatrical terms. The vigorous element of caricature extends into the subject matter – there is strong evidence to suggest that this is a satire on the venality of the legal profession, and the way lawyers twist and distort the law. Engravings after this composition in reverse, the earliest published by the Nuremberg book and art dealer Paulus Fürst, dated the same year, 1618, illustrate pamphlets published attacking the corruption of lawyers, and the way they exercise power by twisting the facts and the law (see fig. 2).6 This subject, made so popular by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, was taken up shortly afterwards in the North Netherlands where, in Utrecht in 1628, Pieter de Bloot painted the same subject with an inscription with the Dutch equivalent of the proverb "Go to law for a sheep and lose a cow".7
Whether enjoyed literally or ironically, there is no doubt that this most modern of subjects treated so humorously give this work a considerable appeal.
Although it is has been suggested that Pieter Brueghel may have had a source, as yet untraced, for this composition, it certainly does not derive, as many of his did, from his father Pieter Bruegel the Elder.8 It is more likely that it was entirely his own invention.
1. The measurements given for this work in the literature – 73 by 105 cm – are incorrect. Its dimensions are 79.5 x 126 cm. A fourth work of similar scale, undated and on canvas, is listed by Ertz as authentic, but we feel it is uncertain. Further versions on panels of this larger scale are likely to be repetitions made both within and without Pieter Brueghel the Younger's workshop.
2. These are: Neuilly, Private collection, 1970, signed and dated P.BRVEGHEL. 1615, oil on panel, 74 by 123 cm.; see Ertz under Literature, p. 501, no. E 489, reproduced; and Spain, private collection, 1998, signed and dated: P.BRVEGHEL. 1616, oil on panel, 76 by 124 cm.; idem, p. 501, no. E 490.
3. In 1937 it was in the Surati collection in Milan; see Ertz, op. cit., p. 502, no E 494, reproduced.
4. See D. De Vos, Stedelijke Musea Brugge, Catalogus Schilderijen 15de en 16de eeuw, Bruges 1979, p. 95, and J. Folie, under Literature, 1993;
5. De Vos, ibid;
6. See Ertz, op. cit., p. 494, figs 378 & 379. Neither pamphlet acknowledges Brueghel as the source of the composition; fig 379 illustrates an engraving bearing the name of the author of the pamphlet Paulus Fürst.
7. Pieter de Bloot, Lawyer's Office, signed and dated 1628, oil on panel, 57 by 83 cm., Amsterdam, Rijsksmuseum; see Van den Brink under Literature, p. 174, reproduced fig. IV-c.
8. Folie (ibid) advanced this theory, partly because of the French language and the peasant's hair styles and clothes, while De Vos (ibid) and Ertz (op. cit., p. 498) admit the possibility, but consider it speculative. French was however the language of the legal profession in Flanders in Brueghel's time.
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