Representations of the seasons or the months have a long, rich history in Flemish painting, reaching as far back as medieval books of hours, and as with most of Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s compositions, this one has an earlier source. It is not entirely clear, however, if its origins lie with the artist’s father Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525/30–69), or with the Flemish painter and draughtsman Hans Bol (1534–93). The composition is known through an engraving by Hieronymus Cock (1518–70) – one of a set of the Four Seasons, published in 1570 (see fig. 1).2 The engraving of Spring is inscribed 'Bruegel inv', acknowledging Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s authorship of the design, and both Spring and Summer are closely derived in reverse from careful preparatory drawings by Bruegel the Elder, clearly made to be engraved, although they are dated three years apart: 1565 and 1568.3 The engravings of Autumn and Winter, however, acknowledge Hans Bol as the source of the design. They are of a rather different character to the other two seasons and are more consistent with Bol’s compositions than with those of Bruegel the Elder.
It seems unlikely, then, as Klaus Ertz has suggested might be the case, that Pieter Bruegel the Elder is the source of the designs for all four Seasons and that they were interpreted by Bol. More probable is the possibility that Bruegel the Elder had not completed the preparatory drawings for the engravings upon his death in the preceding year, 1569, so his publisher sought sources for the other two designs elsewhere.4 Unfortunately, neither of Bol’s preparatory drawings appears to have survived. What further complicates the matter is that Bol himself was heavily dependent on Pieter Bruegel the Elder's example, and both artists were familiar with the landscape surrounding Antwerp. The inn to the right (in both the print and the painting) for example, is based on that which both Bruegel and Bol would have known in Hoboken, outside Antwerp. It occurs, for example, in Bruegel the Elder's drawing of 1559 in the Courtauld Institute, London, and in engravings after his designs.5
All four seasonal compositions were painted subsequent to the engravings, not only by Pieter Brueghel the Younger but by other painters, such as Abel Grimmer (c. 1570–1618/19), whose series in the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, is rather more simplified.6 All the authentic versions of this composition by Brueghel the Younger are on panels of similar size, or when cut down, of similar proportions, confirming that in all likelihood the design was transferred by tracing within the Brueghel atelier. Brueghel has freely adapted the design from Cock’s print, emphasising the repoussoir tree trunks on either side, including two church spires in the distance on the left and increasing the size and prominence of the castle. Even within the autograph group of painted versions there are numerous differences in the details, particularly in the actions and number of figures on the ice. The dress of many of the figures has also been adapted from the print, lending the scene a rather more contemporary feel. Overall, the composition is generally sparser and more wintry (the vineyard on the hill to the left of Cock’s print, for example, has been transformed into a bare, snow-covered bank) – closer in fact, to the spirit of the artist’s father.
1 See K. Ertz, Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere, Freren 1998/2000, pp. 601–02, cat. nos E 665–E 677. E = Echt, meaning Genuine, as opposed to A = Abgeschrieben, meaning De-attributed or Rejected, and F = Fraglich, meaning Doubtful or Questionable. The uncertainty about the number of accepted works is due to the likelihood of the duplication of entries.
2 See F.W.H. Hollstein, Dutch and Flemish etchings, engravings and woodcuts ca. 1450–1700, Amsterdam 1951, vol. IV, p. 185, cat. nos 120 and 121.
3 See Ertz 1998/2000, reproduced p. 538, figs 412 and 413.
4 See Ertz 1998/2000, pp. 537–42.
5 See H. Mielke, Pieter Bruegel: die Zeichnungen, Belgium 1996, pp. 55–56, cat. no. 44, reproduced p. 167.
6 Inv. no. 831; see E. Vandamme, ed., Catalogus schilderkunst oude meesters. Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, Antwerp 1988, p. 170, cat no. 831, reproduced.
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