This composition by Pieter Brueghel the Younger proved to be one of his most popular. Known in numerous versions, of which some twenty-five are considered autograph, the earliest dated version is from the year 1615. Brueghel produced the composition in two sizes, the smaller format measuring approximately 55 by 87 cm., and the larger format, such as the present example, measuring approximately 76 by 123 cm.1 The overall design was done from a tracing and so remains largely the same in the various versions. However, Brueghel modified his use of color and tone from one work to another. While the background in all the versions is mostly a neutral range of beiges and browns, the colors of the figures' clothing varies. For example, in this painting the vest worn by the older man in the foreground, holding a hat in his left hand, is a pinkish hue where in other versions it is a deep red; the man standing at far left, here wearing a red chemise, is in blue in other examples.2 For the most part, the caricatured faces remain consistent and the overall scene displays Brueghel’s talent for narrative detail.
The genesis of the composition has long been debated as it does not derive from one of his father's works, where Brueghel the Younger often drew inspiration, or even from one of his father's contemporaries, such as Marten van Cleve or Pieter Balten. It has been suggested that the composition could have a possible French origin.3 Though traditionally this work has been variously titled the "Tax Collector’s Office," the "Payment of Tithes," or "Rent Day," it is now thought to depict a village lawyer’s office.4 An inventory of a collection from as early as 1627 describes a painting on panel by the younger Brueghel as "een franschen procureur" (a French Lawyer).5 Brueghel depicts a rather chaotic scene as peasants line up for the services of the lawyer who is seated behind a paper-laden desk. They have brought produce - bunches of grapes, dead fowl, a basket of eggs - to offer as payment, while others appear to be anxiously awaiting decisions. The overall cartoon-like representation of the scene suggests that it is most likely a satire of the legal profession. In fact, an engraving made after the composition was published in 1618 by Paulus Fürst for a pamphlet denouncing the corruption of lawyers and, given this subject, perhaps explains the enduring popularity of the composition.
1. See C. Currie and D. Allart, The Brueg[H]el Phenomenon, Paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Pieter Brueghel the Younger with a Special Focus on Technique and Copying Practice, Brussels 2012, vol. II, p. 672.
2. See K. Ertz, Pieter Brueghel der Jügere, Lingen 2000, cat. nos. 490 and 511, reproduced in color pp. 506-7, figs. 370 and 371.
3. See Ertz, ibid., p. 499.
4 See. D. de Vos, Stedelijke Musea Brugge, Catalogus Schilderijen 15de en 16de eeuw, Bruges 1979, p. 95; and C. Currie and D. Allart, op.cit., p. 671.
5. See de Vos, ibid.