Lot 29
  • 29

Pieter Brueghel the Younger

600,000 - 800,000 GBP
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  • Pieter Brueghel the Younger
  • The peasants' brawl – 'La rixe des paysans'
  • oil on oak panel, the reverse with the brand of the City of Antwerp and the maker's mark of a clover leaf for Michiel Claessins (active c. 1590–1637)


Private Collection, France;
With Johnny van Haeften, London;
From whom acquired by the present owner.


The following condition report is provided by Sarah Walden who is an external specialist and not an employee of Sotheby's: Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Village Scene. This painting is on a large panel made up of four pieces of oak. The widest section is at the top, and has remained largely stable, apart from a single crack parallel with the joint just below. This joint has recently been stabilised with a few small wooden supporting blocks from the centre across to the left side, and appears never to have moved at the far right end. The fairly short crack just above it runs along the roofs of the cottages in the centre only. A few carefully placed bars behind are attached to a single cross bar near the middle of the back of the painting. This is quite narrow as are the few vertical bars that are spaced across it most of which do not span the complete height of the panel and are held at one remove from the wood itself, being the antithesis of a cradle. The various joints have narrow lines of retouching very well integrated. The lowest joint may never have opened at all and has only an extremely fine line retouched in some parts. A quite short diagonal retouching can be seen under ultra violet light crossing the horse drawn cart in the square in front of the church. Some slightly dim old retouching is faintly visible at the top centre of the sky, but the fine craquelure of the sky is beautifully clear and intact elsewhere throughout, with the crisp brushwork of the foliage of the trees against the sky unworn and strong. Some of the cottages have slightly uneven and thin washes on the walls, and the always vulnerable liquid brushwork of the ground between the figures has also suffered in many places with various little retouchings, while the figures themselves remain strong and finely preserved overall. A central joint runs through the face of the frightened woman caught at centre right, but she has only a very narrow line of retouching well integrated, while a rather wider line of retouching crosses the blue jacket of the man at centre left. The condition of the figures virtually throughout and of the surrounding details of the village is unusually intact and finely preserved. 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

Neither Pieter Bruegel the Elder nor his son Pieter Brueghel the Younger could ever be said to have shied from presenting everyday peasant life in all its many forms. Here a fight has broken out between two peasants armed with a pitchfork and a flail, and four others, including two brave women, attempt to intervene, with painful results. The great Flemish scholar Georges Hulin de Loo regarded this composition as 'un des groups les plus complexes, les plus vivants, les plus violents et les plus réalistes et en meme temps les plus plastiques don't l'histoire de l'art nous fournisse l'exemple'.1 No overt moral meaning is seemingly attached, but the barrel and flagon together with the scattered playing cards clearly suggest the cause of the quarrel, and the contrast with the peaceful village street beyond is plain.

Although no drawing or painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder of this subject has survived, the design of the Peasants' brawl was in all probability his invention. The composition was certainly well-known in his son's lifetime through an engraving by Lucas Vorsterman (fig. 1) of around 1620, which is inscribed 'PIETER BRUEGEL INVENIT' and dedicated to his brother Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625), who very probably owned the original. The larger figures and distinctive facial types are, as Ertz observes, typical of the later works of the elder Bruegel, such as the The peasant and nest robber of 1568 in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. The principal group of fighting figures was also copied by Rubens in a drawing today in the Museum Boymans van Beuningen in Rotterdam,2 (fig. 2), and again in a painting that is listed in his own inventory and described as a copy after 'old Bruegel'.3 That painting is probably now lost; a picture formerly in the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden but now destroyed has been advanced as the possible original, and another version formerly in the Tuchler collection was exhibited as the work of Jan Brueghel the Elder with retouchings by Rubens, but this is now considered by Ertz to be the work of Jan Brueghel the Younger.4

This panel is by far the largest of the known versions of this composition to have survived. In his catalogue of the works of Pieter Brueghel the Younger Klaus Ertz lists only ten autograph versions of the design, with dated examples ranging from 1610 to 1622, and the largest three only 75 by 100 cm. Four of these are now in Museums; the Musée Fabre, Montpelier, the Národní Galerie in Prague, the Staatliche Museen in Berlin and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson collection. This panel is likely to be the latest in date of the known versions. Recent dendrochronological analysis has indicated a likely felling date of circa 1617 and thus a probable use for the panel in the later 1620s. The relationship between the various versions is quite complex, and much argument remains as to what extent Pieter Brueghel the Younger may have worked with his brother or his nephew.5 The landscape backgrounds in the known versions vary a good deal, but that in the present work follows most closely that in the ex-Tuchler version and given the dating of the panel may well be the work of Jan Brueghel the Younger (1601–78).

The attribution to Pieter Brueghel the Younger has been confirmed by Dr. Klaus Ertz on the basis of photographs. Dr. Ertz also confirms that in his opinion the village landscape in the background is the work of Jan Brueghel the Younger.

1. G. Hulin de Loo, Peter Bruegel l'Ancien: Son oeuvre et son temps, Brussels 1907, cited by G. Marlier, Piere Brueghel le jeune, Brussels 1969, p. 265.

2. Inv. V8. Black chalk and wash. A.W.M. F. Meij and M. de Haan, Rubens, Jordaens, Van Dyck and their circle: Flemish Master Drawings from the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, exh. cat. Rotterdam 2001, pp. 113–14, reproduced in colour.

3. Rubens' inventory of 1640 lists under no. 143: 'A peice of Boores fightinge made after a draught of old Bruegel'. See the Appendix to the exhibition catalogue, A House of Art. Rubens as Collector, Rubenshuis, Antwerp 2004, p. 330. The painting was later acquired by Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, and was still part of his widow's estate in 1654.

4. Panel, 97 by 126 cm. Exhibited Antwerp, De Bruegel à Rubens: l'école de peinture anversoise 1550–1650, 1992, no. 73. See also K. Ertz in the catalogue of the exhibition Pieter Brueghel le jeune – Jan Brueghel l'ancien. Une famille de peintres flamands vers 1600, Antwerp, Koninklijk Museen voor Schone Kunsten, 1998, p. 396, under no. 143.

5. For a good discussion of the group see K. Belkin, 'Copies and adaptations from Renaissance and later artists: German and Netherlandish artists', in Corpus Rubeniuanum Ludwig Burchard, no. XXVI vol. I, pp. 189–97, nos. 89–92, vol. 2, plates 255–61.