Lot 31
  • 31

JAN BRUEGHEL THE ELDER, HENDRIK VAN BALEN I | Diana and her nymphs after the hunt

600,000 - 800,000 GBP
2,050,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Circle of Jan Brueghel the Younger
  • Diana and her nymphs after the hunt
  • oil on oak panel, single plank
  • 55.6 x 94.3 cm.; 21 7/8  x 37 1/8  in.


Possibly inherited by Jan Brueghel the Younger (1601–78) from his father and recorded in his journal: '48. Een landschap stuc van mon Père, van Bael de nimfkens heel curieus gedaen';
The Hon. John Spencer (1708–46), by 1742;

Thence by family descent at Althorp (their red wax seals on the reverse) to Albert Edward John, 7th Earl Spencer (1892–1975), and in the collection at the time of his death: thus probably to John Spencer, 8th Earl Spencer (1924–92);

With Kurt Müllenmeister, Solingen, from whom acquired by Baron van Dedem on 12 December 1982.


Essen, Villa Hügel, Kulturstiftung Ruhr, and Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Pieter Breughel der Jungëre (1564–1637/38) and Jan Brueghel der Ältere (1568–1625), 16 August – 16 November 1997 and 9 December 1997 – 14 April 1998, no. 81.


A list of pictures belonging to the Hon. John Spencer, scheduled for mortgage, 1742 (as ‘Diana and her Nymphs returned from hunting by Van Bele Gurcino and Brugel’); G. Knapton, Catalogue of the Pictures at Althorpe and Wimbledon belonging to the late Honble Mr Spencer, 1746, no. 280 (as hanging in the picture Clossett; 'Diana and her Attendants by Van Balen with Dogs and dead Game Brughell’);

A Catalogue of the Pictures of Althorp taken in the year 1750, 1750 (as hanging in the Picture Closet; ‘A Landschape over Do of Diana & Her Attendants by Van Calen, The Dogs and Game by Brughel. The Landscape…’);

H. Walpole, Journals of visits to country seats, etc., 1760 (as ‘Diana and Nymphs. Rottenhammer’); in P. Toynbee, ‘Horace Walpole’s Journals of visits to country seats, &c.’, in The Walpole Society, vol. XVI, 1928, p. 31;

Catalogue of the Pictures at Althorp made in November 1802, 1802 (as ‘Diana & her Nymphs. Fig by Van Balen, dogs by Brueghel’);

T.F. Dibdin, Aedes Althorpianae..., London 1822, pp. 15–16 (as hanging in the Drawing Room);

Catalogue of the pictures at Althorp House, 1851, p. 9, no. 49 (as ‘Van Balen and Brueghel’);

K. Zoege van Manteuffel, 'Eine verschollene Studienfolge Jan Brueghels der Ältere und ihre Schicksale', in Berliner Museen, vol. XLIV, 1923, p. 11, reproduced p. 9, fig. 11;

G. Glück, Rubens, Van Dyck und ihr Kreis, Vienna 1933, p. 356;

K.J. Garlick, 'A catalogue of pictures at Althorp', in The Walpole Society, vol. XLV, 1976, pp. 9–10, cat. no. 69;

K. Ertz, Jan Brueghel der Ältere (1568–1625). Die Gemälde mit kritischem Œuvrekatalog, Cologne 1979, pp. 405, 536 (note 650) and 621, cat. no. 376, reproduced fig. 481 (the animals and game attributed to Frans Snyders);

K.J. Müllenmeister, 'Diana als Jagdgöttin', in Weltkunst, vol. 53, 1983, pp. 394–96, reproduced in colour p. 396, figs 4 and 5;

A. Werche, in K. Ertz (ed.), Pieter Breughel der Jungëre (1564–1637/38) and Jan Brueghel der Ältere (1568–1625), exh. cat., Lingen and Vienna 1997, pp. 275–77, cat. no. 81, reproduced (Vienna ed.);

P.C. Sutton, Dutch & Flemish Paintings. The Collection of Willem Baron van Dedem, London 2002, pp. 60–67, cat. no. 9, reproduced in colour;

B. Werche, Hendrick van Balen (1575–1632): ein Antwerpener Kabinettbildmaler der Rubenszeit, Turnhout 2004, vol. I, p. 167, cat. no. A 85; vol. II, reproduced p. 374;

K. Ertz, with C. Nitze-Ertz, Jan Brueghel der Ältere (1568–1625), Lingen 2008–10, vol. II, p. 718, cat. no. 351, reproduced in colour p. 719.

Catalogue Note

The subject of Diana and her nymphs has been a perennially desirable one for artists, offering as it does the opportunity to allude to the mythological origin of the courtly pursuit of hunting and to depict a variety of animals, detailed still lifes, bosky landscapes, and of course the female nude. It was a theme that saw particular popularity in 17th-century Flanders and The Netherlands, and perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the scope of its iconography, was often treated collaboratively. Brueghel, who executed the landscape, animals and still life, and Van Balen, who painted the figures, frequently worked together on such paintings. This was a particularly agreeable arrangement when, from 1604, the artists became neighbours on the Lange Nieuwstraat in Antwerp and could easily carry the works between their studios. Brueghel and Van Balen painted at least five other renditions of Diana and her Nymphs after the hunt,1 which all date, like the present work, to between 1620 and 1625. The present composition is unique amongst the other five depictions of this subject, which all position the goddess on one side of the foreground with a far-reaching vista in the centre. Here, the large tree is placed in the middle, and acts as a means not only of displaying the beautiful, minutely-rendered hunting equipment and trophies, but of focusing the viewer’s attention on the foreground and the protagonists, who are grouped into a pyramidal arrangement, gracefully interrupted by the nymph on the left, who offers Diana an oceanic cornucopia. Certain motifs recur throughout all these paintings, such as the hanging brace of hares (see the Munich painting, inv. no. 850; fig. 1), the quiver of arrows and hunting horns, and the conceit of the fishnet being opened (see the Munich painting, inv. no. 1950).

This painting also has much in common with the series of three cabinet-sized paintings depicting Diana and her huntresses by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Sir Peter Paul Rubens, datable to circa 1621 and probably commissioned by the Archdukes Albert and Isabella (fig.2).2 Brueghel is known to have attended the Archdukes’ hunting parties himself, as is evidenced by a drawing dated 14 October 1618 depicting the sovereigns at the hunt. His numerous studies of dogs must also have been made from direct observation, most probably of those animals in the archducal kennels (fig. 3). Several of the dogs here, for instance, reappear in the series executed with Rubens, such as the hound in the centre standing alertly behind Diana, and the two dogs lounging on each other on the right, one with its head between its paws looking particularly plaintive (see the Paris painting, inv. no. 68-3-2). This pair was clearly taken from life in a drawing by Brueghel, which accounts for his reuse of the especially endearing trope, now known only through an engraving of 1646 by Wenceslaus Hollar (fig. 4).3

Just as obvious as Brueghel’s attention to detail and delight in characterising the dogs, is his facility for describing texture and impressions of the animate and the inanimate. The distinct qualities of the dogs’ coats contrast with the fur of the dead hares, the feathers of the birds – especially the pheasant on the right – and the slippery surfaces of the fish, not to mention the fine jewellery on the forest floor. These parts of the composition complement the sensuality and grace of van Balen’s figures. The nymph combing Diana’s hair is an original, intimate idea not repeated in any of the other compositions, as is the nymph who convincingly wades through the water, the lower part of her legs skilfully implied beneath the glassy surface. Brueghel and Van Balen produced a number of paintings together based around the mythology of Diana, but the integration of their work in the present painting represents one of their most homogenous realisations of the theme.4 A variant of the present work attributed to a follower of Brueghel the Elder is in the Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht (inv. no. 628).

The panel support comprises a remarkably large single plank of oak from The Netherlands or adjacent lands. A tree ring analysis conducted by Ian Tyers of Dendrochronological Consultancy reveals that the latest heartwood ring found is from 1592, indicating that the tree from which the panel is made was felled after circa 1600.5 

Note on Provenance

In 1625 Jan Brueghel the Elder died at the age of only 56. On his father’s death, his son Jan Brueghel the Younger took over the studio and continued to collaborate with Van Balen on similar themes. Brueghel the Younger inherited many of his father’s works, and it is possible that the present painting may be that described in his journal recording this inventory (see Provenance).6

The work is next securely recorded in the collection of the Hon. John Spencer (1708–46) by 1742 (fig. 5). The description and measurements of a painting sold in Brussels, 18 July 1740, lot 246 may correspond with this picture: ‘Een schon Badt van Diana met Nimphen ende Beesten, door Van Balen; ende Breugel; hoogh 2 v. 2 d., breet 3 v. 4 d.’, but it is probable that the painting may have come to England before then, since Spencer’s ancestors had already begun to collect works in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

Robert Spencer, 2nd Earl of Sunderland (1641–1702) added to the collection of portraits he inherited at Althorp through his peripatetic diplomatic life which led him all over Europe, particularly in the 1670s, to Madrid, Paris, Cologne, and The Hague. Though no inventory survives to document when or where his purchases were made, he was responsible for acquiring some of the most significant paintings that once formed part of the collection, such as Hans Holbein's Henry VIII (today in the Thyssen Collection, Madrid, inv. no. 191[1934.39]). It is not impossible that the present work was also one of his acquisitions, purchased at a time when a number of British collectors were buying cabinet paintings.

Equally likely is that the painting came to Althorp indirectly through the union of Sunderland’s heir, Charles, 3rd Earl of Sunderland (1675–1722) with Lady Anne Churchill (1683–1716), younger daughter of the 1st Duke of Marlborough. Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, Anne's mother, favoured her grandson the Hon. John Spencer (1708–46) who was heir to Althorp, and on her death in 1744 left him most of her property, which included paintings from Marlborough House, Wimbledon Park, the Lodge in Windsor Great Park, and Holywell House, St Albans. John Spencer died only two years after coming into this inheritance, comprised of works such as Sofonisba Anguissola's Self Portrait at the Spinet (still at Althorp), and which may well also have included the present painting, perhaps acquired by the Marlboroughs in the first half of the eighteenth century, when British collections, such as that at Chatsworth, were being added to in earnest.

Either way, this panel may be counted as one of the earliest works to have formed the great collection at Althorp, alongside paintings by, amongst others, Rubens, Van Dyck, Bronzino, Guercino, Hals, Murillo, Lely, Reynolds and Watteau.

1 Two paintings in Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek, inv. nos 850 and 1950; one in a private collection; another formerly with Bernheimer, Munich and London; and one recorded in the collection of Mrs Rush H. Kress, New York; see Werche 2004, vol. I, pp. 165–67, cat. nos A 80–A 84; reproduced vol. II, pp. 372–74.

2 Paris, Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, inv. nos 68-3-1 and 68-3-2; and Munich, Alte Pinakothek, inv. no. 842; see, respectively, Ertz 2008–10, vol. II, pp. 712–14, cat. no. 348, reproduced p. 713; pp. 724–26, cat. no. 355, reproduced p. 725; and pp. 723–24, cat. no. 354, reproduced p. 723.

3 London, British Museum, inv. no. 1855,0310.15.

4 This view was unfortunately not entirely shared by Thomas Frognall Dibdin in 1822 (see Literature), when he described the painting thus: ‘This is a very highly finished picture. That part of it which belongs to Breughel, is equal to any praise. The delicacy, the spirit, and the decision of touch, in the animals, birds, ornaments […] are truly exquisite, and worthy of the wonderful pencilling of the master. The goddess herself, and her attendants, by Van Balen, are very far inferior in merit, and are true representations of a Dutchman’s notion of ideal beauty; they are coarse, ill-formed, and slovenly designed.’

5  Report no. 1052

6 Cited in Ertz 1979, p. 542.