Lot 9
  • 9

Pieter Brueghel the Younger

2,200,000 - 2,600,000 GBP
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  • Pieter Brueghel the Younger
  • the kermesse of Saint George with the dance around the maypole
  • oil on single plank oak panel, the reverse marked with the brand of the Antwerp panel-makers' Guild


Laurent Meeus (1872-1950), Brussels;
From whose widow acquired in 1950 by a private collector;
From whom inherited by the father of the present owner.



The following condition report has been provided by Sarah Walden, an independent restorer who is not an employee of Sotheby's. This painting is on a remarkable single sheet of oak, bevelled on all sides, which has remained beautifully stable with scarcely any movement, just the faintest curve. The panel makers who left their mark of two little hand prints and a tiny turreted city stamped on the back were right to be proud of it. Its perfect preservation is only interrupted by two old, brief cracks at the side edges, probably the result of constraint by nails at the upper sides: one narrow line about three inches long runs in from the upper right edge and has clearly long since been stable. The other is a slightly longer narrow old crack, about four inches long, coming in from the left edge by the sloping roof. This has one or two recent minute lost flakes, although it appears to have existed stably for a long time. Occasional traces of tight nails can be seen in small clusters of craquelure along the top edge, with one or two small retouchings. However the overall craquelure is beautifully fine and even. The right edge has a line of rubbing from a past frame, with band of retouching. The present varnish is quite old, and there appears to have been fairly rare interventions over the life of the painting. There are a few minor retouchings on the surface of this varnish, including two along the top edge mentioned above, and occasional minor cosmetic touches. Some retouching from the previous restoration probably in the earlier decades of the last century can be seen faintly under ultra violet light: in the upper right sky where the foliage of the tree was worn and has been strengthened, as have the birds. The main central body of trees surrounding the village are in largely beautiful condition, with occasional thinner patches, but most of the village itself is finely intact, with a few touches in a roof or a patch on the wall of the cottage to the right, but essentially the whole central scene is beautifully preserved, with the calligraphic brushwork and fine detail of the figures beautifully strong and unworn. A few surface touches can be seen occasionally such as on the dark jacket of the dancing man by the foot of the may pole, with several strengthening touches on the barrel and the drinkers in the lower right corner, but these are superficial. There are a few strengthening touches down the trunk of the tree by the left edge, and slightly reinforced dark outlines along the transitions from the foreground to middle distance, with the water of the river around the bathers also a little strengthened. Essentially however the painting has been preserved from frequent or radical recent interventions, with the vibrant brushwork remaining largely unworn. This report was not done under laboratory conditions.
"This lot is offered for sale subject to Sotheby's Conditions of Business, which are available on request and printed in Sotheby's sale catalogues. The independent reports contained in this document are provided for prospective bidders' information only and without warranty by Sotheby's or the Seller."

Catalogue Note

This hitherto unrecorded picture, painted on a single plank of wood and preserved in excellent condition, has been in the same family collection for sixty years.  It is one of only eight or nine authentic versions of the same composition known by Pieter Brueghel the Younger.1  All of these are on panels of similar dimensions, and as with other paintings by Brueghel known in multiple versions, it is probable that the design was transferred using tracing.  This view is lent support by the characteristic underdrawing revealed in a scan using infra-red reflectography (see fig. 1).2  Of the other versions listed by Klaus Ertz, who seems to have been unaware of the present work, only three (or possibly four) have original signatures, and only one work is recorded as dated, to 1626.3

 A clue to a likely dating is given by a tree-ring analysis of the panel conducted by the dendrochronologist Ian Tyers.4  The single plank panel was cut from an oak growing in Western Europe, probably Flanders (rather than Baltic oak) which was still growing in 1574, the date of the last heartwood ring, and probably felled no earlier than 1582.  This is a lot earlier than the earliest likely date for the painting, but it assumes minimum sapwood growth, and a likely felling date would be somewhat later.  Of greater significance is that this panel was sawn from the same tree as two other single-plank panels that Brueghel used as the supports for two other paintings, both versions of the composition known variously as The Village Lawyer, The Payment of Tithes, or Rent Day.  One of these, in Norwich, Castle Museum, is signed and dated 1618, and the other, in Bruges, Groeningemuseum, is signed and dated 1620.5  Since large single plank panels such as these were expensive, and would not have sat around unused for long, a dating of the present picture to within, or very close to, this span of dates is highly likely: thus between 1617 and 1621.

This composition appears to be of Pieter Brueghel the Younger's own devising, and is not based on any known design of his father's.  Georges Marlier, the doyen of Pieter Brueghel studies, describes it as "dans lequel la personnalité de Pierre [Brueghel] le Jeune s'exprime le plus clairement".6  Marlier, who was aware of only six versions, dated them circa 1620-25.

Baron Laurent Meeus (1872-1950) was a Belgian industrialist, and was one of the founders of the petrochemical concern Petrofina SA in the 1920s.  In his heyday he was a very active collector of Old Master Paintings, and was a great bibliophile who assembled an outstanding library.  He became President of the Friends of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, the main organisation of the museum in financing the acquisition of works of art.  He had intended to donate his Old Master collection to the Museum, but because of the opprobrium that the economic collaboration of Petrofina in wartime with the Axis powers (particularly in the Romanian oilfields) brought him after the war, this never came about.

We are grateful to Jacques Lust, Expert in Restitution matters, Belgian Federal Science Policy, for his help in researching the provenance of this lot.

1. Two versions may be one and the same picture.
2. For a discussion of the use of tracings by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, and copious comparable IRR scans illustrating underdrawing, see P. van den Brink (ed.), Brueghel Enterprises, exhibition catalogue, Maastricht 2001.
3. See K. Ertz, Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere (1564-1637/38).  Die Gemälde.  Mit kritischem Oeuvrekatalog, Lingen 2000, vol. 2, pp. 905-7, nos. E 1226-E 1231a, most reproduced.  The dated picture is no. E 1226.
4. Dendrochronological Consultancy Report 346, May 2010.  A copy of this may be inspected upon request, and will be supplied to the buyer.
5. Norwich, Castle Museum, inv. NWHCM: 1975.272: F; Bruges, Stedelijke Musea, Groeningemuseum, Inv. O.16061; see Ertz, under literature, 2000, vol. 1, p. 503, no. E498 (Norwich), p. 504, no. E 504 (Bruges); see also Van den Brink (ed.), 2001, no. 43 (Norwich) & no. 38 (Bruges), both reproduced in colour.  The reverse of the Bruges panel also bears the brand of the Antwerp panel-makers' Guild, while the reverse of the Norwich picture has been shaved and cradled.  
6. G. Marlier, Pierre Brueghel le Jeune, Brussels 1969, p. 401.