Fully authenticated works by van Cleve are rare; among these are two paintings in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, one of which is dated 1566, and another signed and dated work from 1579 in the collection of the Hermitage, St. Petersburg.1 Van Cleve was a contemporary of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and, while his subject matter and style were clearly influenced by him, his reputation as simply a Bruegel follower is unwarranted.2 He devised his own compositions, some now known only through drawings, which proved to be very popular and were even copied by artists of the next generation, such as Pieter Brueghel the Younger.3
The present composition is one such picture which appears to have influenced the work of Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Brueghel also examined the theme of The Good Shepherd, a popular moralizing theme in the 16th century, which served as a likely counterpart to his Bad Shepherd. Though both of those compositions are thought to derive from lost originals by Bruegel the Elder, no certain prototypes are known. Brueghel the Younger's treatment of the Bad Shepherd (K. Ertz, Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere (1564-1637/38): Die Gemälde, mit kritischem Oeuvrekatalog, Lingen, 2000, p. 210, cat. no. E121; and pp. 147, 149 and 566, fig. 117), however, utilizes a similar wide open landscape with thin winding paths that extend to the distant horizon, which suggests that Brueghel was aware of the painting as he considered his own work.
The origin of the subject comes from John (10:1-30): I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. / He who is a hireling and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming and eaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. / He flees because he is a hireling and cares nothing for the sheep. Van Cleve cleverly fuses a contemporary Flemish country scene into this moralizing tale. He personifies these words as he depicts the shepherd in the act of fighting with an attacking wolf.
Another version of the work was formerly in the collection of the New York Historical Society, and later sold New York, Sotheby's, 12 January 1995, lot 170 (as Circle of Marten van Cleve).
This picture will be included in the forthcoming monograph on Martin van Cleve by Klaus Ertz, where it will be published as cat. no. 9.
1. The Slaughtered Ox, signed and dated 1566, oil on panel, 68 by 53.3 cm., and A Flemish Household, oil on panel, 123 by 144 cm., both in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; The Beggars, signed and dated 1579, oil on panel, in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg.
2. See C. van de Velde, in Grove Dictionary of Art, New York 1996, Vol. 7 p. 428.
3. 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, "Case Study 9," pp. 646-669.
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