His sale et al., Brussels, Fiévez, 21 December 1925, lot 23 (as Jan Brueghel the Elder);
There acquired by Baron Coppée;
Thence by descent.
Worcester, Worcester Art Museum, 23 February – 12 March 1939 and Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection, 25 March – 26 April 1939, The Worcester Philadelphia exhibition of Flemish painting, no. 113;
Brussels, Galerie Robert Finck, Trente-trois tableaux de Pierre Brueghel le Jeune dans les collections privées belges, 1969, no. 23;
Brussels, Palais des Beaux Arts, Bruegel. Une dynastie de Peintres, 18 September – 18 November 1980, no. 88;
Tokyo, Tobu Museum of Art, The World of Bruegel. The Coppée Collection and Eleven International Museums, 29 March – 25 June 1995, no. B28;
G. Marlier, Pierre Brueghel le Jeune, Brussels 1969, p. 242, no. 3, reproduced fig. 152;
The Worcester Philadelphia exhibition of Flemish painting, exhibition catalogue, Worcester 1939, no. 113;
Paris, Galerie d’Art St. Honoré, 1986–87, p. 18, under cat. no. 6 (cited by Ertz, 1998–2000, below);
S. Leclercq et al., La Collection Coppée, Liège 1991, pp. 63–67, reproduced;
M. Wilmotte, in the catalogue of the exhibition The World of Bruegel. The Coppée Collection and Eleven International Museums, Tokyo 1995, p. 109, no. B28, reproduced;
K. Ertz, in the exhibition catalogue, Breughel–Brueghel, Essen, Kulturstiftung and Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Lingen 1997, p. 383;
K. Ertz, in the exhibition catalogue, Breughel–Brueghel, Essen, Kulturstiftung and Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Lingen 1998, p. 370;
K. Ertz, Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere 1564–1637/1638. Die Gemälde mit kritischem Oeuvrekatalog, Lingen 1998–2000, vol. I, pp. 578, 581 and vol. II, pp. 605–06, cat. no. E. 687, reproduced;
C. Currie and D. Allart, The Brueg[H]el Phenomenon, Brussels 2012, vol. II, pp. 341–42, 485–523, 928–29, 995–99, 1001, 1007, 1012–13, 1018, 1020, reproduced figs 100, 103, 106, 302, 307, 311–13, 316, 319, 321–22, 325–26, 328, 661, 668.
The prototype for this famous composition has generally thought to be the painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, signed and dated 1564, formerly in the Delporte collection and today in the Musées des Beaux-Arts in Brussels.3 The near-identical scale and the close correspondence of motifs between the painted copies and the original indicate very strongly that the former must have been based upon Bruegel the Elder's final painted composition, a master cartoon or at least very accurate tracings. The underdrawing on the Coppée panel (fig. 4) indicates beautifully the care and precision with which this was undertaken, and is here very possibly by Brueghel the Younger himself. The recent appearance of a drawing of the composition, sold in these Rooms in 2009 and recently attributed to Jan Brueghel the Elder by Klaus Ertz, would seem to indicate that he too had access to an original painting.4 The origins of the prototype itself undoubtedly lay in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s seminal cycle of paintings of the Months, and in particular his celebrated Hunters in the snow (January) of 1565, today in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.5
The Winter landscape with a bird trap owes its fame to its extraordinary rendering of the atmosphere of a cold winter’s day. In contrast to the clear and biting cold of the Hunters in the snow, here the atmosphere is more misty and welcoming. A blanket of deep snow lies upon a riverside village and the surrounding countryside. On the frozen river the villagers are seen playing at spinning tops, hockey and curling on the ice. The muted palette of greys, blues and pale greens is offset by the red costumes worn by many of the participants, a painterly device which harks back directly to Pieter Brueghel the Elder. But perhaps the most distinctive feature of the painting is the graphic and patterned quality of the overlapping branches of the trees and bushes, which serve to create a wonderful decorative effect. Although the scene is largely imaginary, Marlier suggested a possible identification of the village as Pede-Saint-Anne in Brabant.5 The city seen in silhouette on the horizon in the centre is almost certainly intended for Antwerp. As Marlier was the first to observe, one feature of the Coppée panel is, however, rare among the many versions of the Bird Trap. This is the inclusion of the figures of man leading a woman upon a donkey on the far bank of the river on the left hand side of the composition, presumably intended to represent the figures of Joseph and Mary on their way to Bethlehem (fig. 2). Again, the inclusion of such a small but iconographically significant detail within the larger compositon is very much a device employed by the elder Bruegel. Only four other certainly autograph versions include this detail; that in the Museum Mayer van den Bergh in Antwerp, another last recorded in the Hartmann collection in Rome in 1954, and those sold London, Christie’s, 9 December 1995, lot 9, and 4 July 1997, lot 32.6 It is not to be found, however, in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s own painting of 1565 in Brussels, nor any of the many purely workshop copies, and seems to have been an invention of Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s. This very small group also include the additional motif of a man leading a mule across the bridge in the distance (fig. 3).
It has often been suggested that the Winter landscape with a bird trap, for all its realism, also contains an underlying message alluding to the precariousness of life. In one of his engravings of Winter – Ice skating before St. George's Gate, Antwerp, Pieter Bruegel the Elder added the inscription: 'Lubricitas Vitæ Humanæ. La lubricité de la vie humaine. De slibberachtigeyt van’s Menschen Leven' ('The precariousness of Human Life') referring to the ways in which people find themselves 'slipping and sliding through a life whose existence is more slippery and fragile than ice itself'. The eponymous bird trap itself has also, for example, been interpreted as symbolic of the brevity of life, but is much more likely to be a straightforward detail alluding to the need to lay in food for the winter months. Nevertheless the hole in the ice, or the figures of the two children running heedlessly towards their parents across the ice despite the latter’s warning cries, all clearly point to the dangers inherent in even this idyllic winter scene, and thereby the fickleness and basic uncertainty of life itself.
A note on the panel support
The recent and extremely thorough examination of the Coppée Bird trap, undertaken by Christina Currie and Dominique Allart at the IRPA in Brussels, and its comparison with versions in the Museum Mayer van den Bergh, a Belgian private collection, and the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, afford us an unprecedented wealth of technical detail regarding the construction and execution of these panels.8 Dendrochronological examination has revealed that both the Coppée panel and that in the Museum Mayer van den Bergh in Antwerp were cut from the same tree. The last annual ring measured is from 1593, giving the year 1607 as the earliest possible date for the tree felling and the making of the panel. This is rather earlier than one might expect for panels that were completed in 1622(?) and 1626 respectively, but it is supported by the fact that the Antwerp panel bears on the reverse the brand of the panel maker's Guild in Antwerp in use between 1617 and 1626. Though all the studied examples were similarly painted on single board oak panels, with a white ground and grey imprimatura, the authors note that the Coppée panel was 'accorded particular care at the level and preparation of the paint layer', which 'may well represent the Master's own hand'. They note that the version 'stands out as being of a consistently higher quality than the others over a wide range of motifs'.
1. K. Ertz, see Literature, 2000, vol. II, pp. 605–30, cat. nos E682 to A805a, many reproduced.
2. The earliest, that now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, is dated 1601.
3. F. Grossmann, Brueghel. The Paintings, London 1956, p. 119, no. 114. For a good summary of this debate see Ertz, op. cit., 2000, vol. II, pp. 575–87.
4. Sale, London, Sotheby's, 8 July 2009, lot 32, reproduced (as Circle of Pieter Breugel the Elder).
5. F. Grossmann, op. cit. 1956, pp. 196–98, figs 87–90.
6. Marlier, in the catalogue of the exhibition, Le Siècle de Brueghel, Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, 1963, p. 69.
7. Listed in Currie and Allart, op. cit., 2012, vol. II, pp. 511, 522, n. 53. Ertz, op. cit. 2000, pp. 605–17, nos A685, A691–2, A704.
8. Currie and Allart, op. cit., 2012, vol. II, pp. 185–219, figs 302–338b.
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