Lot 27
  • 27

Jan Brueghel the Elder

300,000 - 400,000 GBP
542,500 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Jan Brueghel the Elder
  • A river running through a small town, with a cattle ferry on the water and rowing boats setting off from the left bank
  • signed lower right: BRVEGHEL
  • oil on copper


Private collection, England;
Anonymous sale, London, Sotheby's, 21 March 1973, lot 78, to Koetser for £28,000;
With Leonard Koetser, London,1973;
Private collection, Germany;
With David M. Koetser, Zurich, 1977;
Acquired from the above by the late owners in April 1979 for 750,000 Swiss francs.


K. Ertz, Jan Brueghel der Ältere, Cologne 1979, p. 573, cat. no. 96, reproduced fig. 30;
K. Ertz and C. Nitze-Ertz, Jan Brueghel der Ältere, vol. I, Lingen 2008, p. 298, cat. no. 139, reproduced.

Catalogue Note

This is a relatively early landscape by Jan Brueghel the Elder, painted on copper and well preserved, that last appeared on the market in the 1970s. There is a drawing of the same composition which is likely to be preparatory for this work.

Around 1602–03 Brueghel seems to have experimented extensively with this compositional type – namely a canal or river passing through a town, enclosed on each side by a densely wooded river bank. Of particular relevance to the present example are the 1602-dated copper sold in Brussels in 1958, and the two signed works formerly with Galerie Gismondi in Paris, which, compositionally, both come particularly close to the present landscape, even including the ferryboat in the very centre of the waterway, seen directly from behind as it heads downstream towards town.1 All on copper and of very similar dimensions, in each of these paintings Brueghel manifests a similar interest in the bird life and vegetation that inhabit these semi-urban thoroughfares. Each of them draws the eye in downstream to a cluster of dwellings and a distant, sun-drenched church beyond, in or just off-centre. There can be little doubt that these works are linked both in the chronology of Brueghel’s œuvre but also as a sort of project in itself, all being painted on similarly-size coppers and borrowing aspects and motifs from each other. They are supported by a small group of drawings of which one is directly linked to the present work and which would appear to be a well-worked study for it (fig. 1). This is thus one of the few works by Brueghel that can be connected with extant drawings by or attributed to the artist.

The painting marks the starting point of Brueghel’s trials with the theme of the river landscape, one that he would develop over the ensuing decade and that would culminate in the expansive and highly-populated masterpieces of the 1610s, such as the 1614-dated panel in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna and the 1612-dated copper sold in these Rooms in 2008.2 In this small copper, datable to around 1602–03, we look along the left bank of a canal or river over a group of rowing boats towards a town, with the entire foreground devoted to the width of the waterway. Throughout his career Brueghel invariably focussed his composition on the left bank of the river and as the chronology of his river landscapes progresses it is possible to determine a greater focus on the quay itself so that, in several works from the period 1604–06, the composition has been widened from the constraints of the present, earlier, example to allow a quay to dominate almost the entirety of the left half of the picture plane.3 Subsequently, in the afore-mentioned later works from the 1610s, the quay rather than the river becomes the principal focus and itself inhabits the entirety of the foreground in the river’s place which is subjugated to the right-hand margin. Brueghel’s compositional developments gradually brought the narrative to the fore, with the focus on the interplay of human figures, whereas in the early landscapes such as this, Breughel’s concentration seems less on a narrative and more on the interplay of the natural world, and all its fascinating elements, with the artifice of human construction.

1. Ertz and Nitze-Ertz 2008, under Literature, p. 296, cat. nos 136–38, all reproduced.
2. Ibid., pp. 286–88, cat. no. 133; and pp. 284–86, cat. no. 132, both reproduced.
3. See, for example, the works dated 1606 in the Wellington Museum, London and sold London, Sotheby’s, 7 July 2004, lot 28; ibid., pp. 271–73, cat. nos 120 and 121, both reproduced.