Each of the three works by Pieter Brueghel the Younger from the Coppée Collection is exceptional. Between them, they perfectly represent the three key strands in Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s oeuvre. Brueghel was working in a Flanders that had only recently found peace after a long period of religious and civil strife, and oppression from the Spanish Habsburgs. Brueghel’s Calvary is set in a bleak and inhospitable landscape. The massed rocky mountainside beyond and the baleful lowering sky above menace the cruel scene below. As in all of Brueghel’s paintings however, most of the figures are in contemporary dress, including the soldiery, who would have been familiar to viewers in Brueghel’s day, even though they were no longer actual instruments of terror. The subject depicted, the climax of the Christian story, is thus also a scene of quotidian cruelty. In the background is Jerusalem, with the Temple in its centre, but around it are Flemish Gothic churches, but like the costumes, they do not appear incongruous to the eye, because Brueghel has brought the entire scene forward to his present day.
The Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap depicts a Flemish village in the depths of winter. It is however a landscape tamed and civilised by man, and its beauty under snow and in a crisp clear winter light is what Brueghel celebrates. Though probably imaginary, it would have been completely familiar to Brueghel’s countrymen – and to underscore this, the skyline of Antwerp is visible on the horizon. It is a landscape without fear, a prosperous scene where neither war nor the obvious cold of winter threaten its essential humanity.
Breughel also celebrates his countrymen themselves, not as a dispassionate observer, but as one of them. The peasantry throwing themselves whole-heartedly into the raucous drunken revelry of a country wedding in his Outdoor Wedding Dance are not viewed with disapproval or moralizing intent, and if the figures are caricatural, they are caricatured with the affection of a man who was one of them, a fellow wedding guest, perhaps.