Lot 11
  • 11

Jan Brueghel the Elder

3,000,000 - 5,000,000 GBP
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  • Jan Brueghel the Elder
  • Still life of flowers in a stoneware vase
  • oil on oak panel


Baron Alphonse von Rothschild, Schloss Schillersdorf (Šilheřovice), Silesia, by 1911 (bears Schillersdorf inventory no. 2684 on a label affixed to the reverse);

Appropriated by forced transfer in 1939 and allocated to the Národní galerie, Prague (inv. no. 0-1607);

Restituted to the heirs of Alphonse von Rothschild in 2016.


Prague, Národní galerie, Flámská a holandská zátiší 17. století z Národní galerie v Praze, 1967, no. IV;

Bruges, Groeningemuseum, Chefs d’œuvre de Prague 1450–1750. Trois siècles de peinture flamande et hollandaise, 1974, no. 19, p. 47, plate 45;

Prague, Národní galerie (inv. no. 0-1607), 1939–2016.


Manuscript inventory of Schloss Schillersdorf (Šilheřovice), undated (after 1916), no. 2684, located in the Nordtraktgang, (North wing corridor), room 26 on the 1st floor;

Inventář obrazů a plastik spravovaných Obrazárnou Společnosti vlasteneckých přátel umění, později Státní sbírkou starého umění,
1936-1939, cat. no. 2235;

Státní sbírka starého umění, Prague 1939, p. 3, no. 29;

P. Kropáček, ‘Nové zisky Národní galerie’, in Volné směry, XXXV, 1938/40, p. 159;

J. Cibulka, J. Loriš, V. Novotný, ‘Výstava přírůstků ve Státní sbírce starého umění v Praze’, in Umění, XII, 1939–40, p. 160;

Verzeichnis der von den jüdischen Auswanderern gemäss Entscheidungen des Ministeriums für Schulwesen und Volkskultur an die Galerie in Prag I. geleisteten Abgaben. Beilage des Briefes an die Geheime Staatspolizei, Staatspolizeileitstelle, 5 September 1941, cat. no. ?;

A. Masaryková, J. Pavelka, J. Pešina, Národní galerie v Praze. Výstava vybraných děl 14.-20. století, Prague 1945, no. 196;

V. Novotný, J. Pešina, J. Mašín, Národní galerie v Praze. Sbírka starého umění, Prague 1949, p. 10, no. 59;

V. Novotný, J. Pešina, J. Mašín, Národní galerie v Praze. Sbírka starého umění, Prague 1955, p. 9, no. 53;

M.-L. Hairs, Les peintres flamands de fleurs au XVIIe siècle, Paris and Brussels 1955, p. 39, reproduced fig. 12;

V. Novotný, J. Pešina, J. Mašín, Národní galerie v Praze. Sbírka starého umění, Prague 1960, p. 10, no. 60;

J. Šíp, O. J. Blažíček, Flämische Meister des 17. Jahrhunderts, Prague–Hanau 1963, p. XI, no. 14, 15;

M. Eemans, Brueghel de Velours, Brussels 1964, reproduced fig. 33;

M.-L. Hairs, Les peintres flamands de fleurs au XVIIe siècle, 2nd ed., Paris and Brussels 1965, p. 66, 365;

J. Šíp, Flámská a holandská zátiší 17. století z Národní galerie v Praze, Prague 1967, p. 9, no. IV;

J. Šíp, Bilance flámského malířství 17. století v pražské Národní galerii, Prague 1969, p. 609;

O. J. Blažíček (ed.) Národní  galerie v PrazeSbírka starého umění. Seznam vystavených děl, Prague 1971, p. 42, no. 234;

J. Šíp, Nizozemské, flámské a holandské malířství XV–XVIII. století v pražské Národní galerii, unpublished manuscript, 1973, pp. 101–2, no. 89;

J. Šíp, Chefs-d’œuvre de Prague 1450–1750. Trois siècles de peinture flamande et hollandaise, Bruges 1974, p. 47, no. 19;

K. Ertz, Jan Brueghel der Ältere (1568–1625). Die Gemälde mit kritischem Œuvrekatalog, Cologne 1979, pp. 263–64, 268, 279, 585, no. 166, reproduced pp. 262–63, fig. 330, 330a, fig 16; 

J. Šíp, Holandské malířství 17. století ze sbírek Národní galerie v Praze, 1979, p. 21;

H. Seifertová, ‘Poznámky k výstavě “Stilleben in Europa”’, in Umění, XXIX, 1981, p. 168;

M.-L. Hairs, The Flemish flower painters in the XVIIth century, Brussels 1985, pp. 72, 466;

L. Slavíček, in J. Kotalík (ed.), Národní galerie v Praze I. Sbírka starého evropského umění…, Prague 1984, pp. 128–29;

L. Slavíček, in J. Kotalík (ed.), Die Nationalgalerie in Prag. I. Sammlung der alten europäischen Kunst…, Prague 1988, pp. 126–27; 

J. Mašín (ed.), Staré evropské umění. Sbírky Národní galerie v Praze. Šternberský palác, Prague 1988, p. 107, no. 174;

B. Brenninckmeyer-de Rooij, ‘Zeldzame bloemen, “fatta tutti del naturel” door Jan Brueghel I’, in Oud Holland, 104, 1990, pp. 233, 246, reproduced p. 246, fig. 18;

C. Wright, The World’s Master Paintings. From the Early Renaissance to the Present Day, London and New York 1992, p. 258;

A. Chong and W. Kloek (eds), Still-Life Paintings from the Netherlands, exhibition catalogue, Zwolle 1999, p. 112, under cat. no. 3;

L. Slavíček, The National Gallery in Prague. Flemish Paintings of the 17th and 18th Centuries. Illustrated Summary Catalogue, 1 / 2, Prague 2000, p. 96, no. 63, reproduced;

K. Ertz and C. Nitze-Ertz, Jan Brueghel der Ältere (1568–1625). Kritischer Katalog der Gemälde, vol. III, Blumen…, Lingen 2008–10, pp. 919–23, no. 434 (and under nos 435 and 437), reproduced pp. 921–22;

‘Brueghel Family: Jan Brueghel the Elder’, The Brueghel Family Database, University of California, Berkeley, http://janbrueghel.net/ (accessed May 17 2016), as datable 1609.


The following condition report is provided by Sarah Walden who is an external specialist and not an employee of Sotheby's:Jan Brueghel the Elder. Flowers in a Stoneware Vase. This painting is on a fine oak panel. There has been one vertical crack about six inches long running down from the top on the left. The cradle could have been added in response to that, at the beginning of the last century. There does not appear to have been any movement since. This also seems to have been the moment when restoration was carried out, and old darkened retouching is visible to the naked eye, almost entirely in the background. The flowers are very beautifully preserved overall, with occasional little darkened retouching strokes for instance in the yellow tulips and the red rose, with more in the lower central yellow flowers. The deep red madder glazes in the pink roses have often proved vulnerable and have almost been lost here. However many extraordinarily intact details can be seen in the lily and iris, the red tulips and fritillaries, with even the butterfly remaining perfectly intact. The beetle in the foreground is also immaculately preserved, as are the fruit and flowers on the foreground ledge. The outer background above behind the flowers has had frequent patches of retouching mainly near the edges, although these are unlikely to cover actual losses but rather slight wear or rubbing by the frame. The ledge has also had some wear and past retouching in the shadows. Although the discordant old retouching is exposed in this newly restituted painting with the old decayed varnish, the original quality is clearly visible throughout.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

It is easy to forget that Jan Brueghel started to paint independent floral still-lifes before any other artist in the Southern Netherlands. The magnificent flower-pieces that he produced in the first decade of the 17th century, of which this is an outstanding example, are so accomplished and assured that they do not feel like pioneering essays in a brand-new genre, but they were, and they went on to influence the course of flower-painting in oils in European art for centuries.

A pure or independent flower still life is a painting in which flowers, usually arranged in a vase of some sort, are the principal subject of the picture, rather than forming a subordinate part of another work such as a history painting. In most flower-pieces from Brueghel onwards throughout the 17th century, the floral arrangement dominates the composition completely with, as here, a neutral dark background, or, from the following decade onwards, a plain setting of a stone niche. Insects, butterflies, snails and separate sprays of flowers or rosemary appear, but they are wholly subordinate to the principal subject.

We do not know what inspired Brueghel to start painting such flower still lifes around the middle of the first decade of the 17th century, but it is clear from surviving correspondence that among the earliest was a work for his long-standing Italian patron Cardinal Federico Borromeo in Milan, almost certainly the impressive flower piece on copper, dated 1606, in the Ambrosiana, Milan, named the Großer Mailander Strauß by Klaus Ertz.1 The correspondence reveals that his artistic ambition was to depict the rare and beautiful in nature as close to nature as possible. On April 14th 1606, Brueghel wrote that he had begun the painting that was remarkable ‘as much for naturalness as for the beauty and rarity of various flowers, some are unknown and little seen in this area; for this, I have been to Brussels in order to depict some few flowers from nature that are not found in Antwerp.’2 A further letter dated 25 August reveals that the painting was completed: ‘in this picture I have invested all my skill. I do not believe that so many rare and different flowers have ever been painted before, nor finished with such diligence: it will be a fine sight in the winter. Some of the colours are very close to the real thing.’3 That Brueghel started his flower piece for Borromeo in the spring and finished it in late summer is no coincidence: in other correspondence he accounted for the difficulty of painting them, since they could only be accomplished when the blooms were in season. He claimed not to have made intermediary drawings or paintings, so it is apparent that his working method, especially in his early flower-pieces, was additive, in that he painted the flowers in their intended loci in the composition whenever they came into bloom. This explains why, in later flower pieces painted to fulfil what was clearly an inexhaustible demand, compositions, or parts of compositions are reproduced, presumably from paintings that remained in his workshop. As late as 1611 however, in a letter to Borromeo’s agent Bianchi, he claimed that he refused to let assistants paint flowers. He went on to state the flowers needed to be painted from life (‘alla prima’), without intermediary drawings or sketches, over the course of four months.4

Brueghel had spent a long time with Cardinal Borromeo and no doubt well understood the tastes and artistic concerns of his long-standing patron, for whom the contemplation of paintings was a specifically spiritual exercise. Much later, Borromeo wrote of his collection: ‘I have had my study decorated with paintings… and the pleasure of beholding them seemed to me no less wonderful than the broad views of nature themselves… Paintings capture heaven and earth in the smallest of spaces, and we wander around inside them, undertaking long spiritual journeys, while standing still in our room.’5 Perhaps inadvertently, Borromeo profoundly influenced the taste of collectors for the work of Jan Brueghel, and in particular for his revolutionary flower-pieces.

The Rothschild flower-piece is probably slightly later than the Borromeo picture now in the Ambrosiana. Klaus Ertz considers the flower-piece in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (named by him the Wiener Irisstrauß) to be the next significant work, datable circa 1607.6 Both are very lavish works crammed full of blooms which extend to the sides and top of the picture plane. They are so overwhelming and colourful that one initially fails to notice that neither displays much sense of depth, the flowers implausibly overloading their vases. In contrast, the Rothschild painting is more ordered and less overcrowded, with wider  margins at the sides and top giving the composition more space to breathe, and imbuing it with a greater sense of depth, accentuated by the darker leaves at the sides receding into the shadows. Klaus Ertz, who named it the Prager Tulpenstrauß, marked the greater maturity of its composition by dating it slightly later, circa 1607–08. Like all of Brueghel’s early flower-pieces, it is lit from the left, with the vase throwing a shadow towards the right background.

While Brueghel often repeated his floral compositions, it is unusual that no less than three other autograph works are clearly derived directly from the Rothschild flower-piece. Each repeat all the essential elements of the composition, although all three lack a number of elements, including the distinctive and unusual crowing green iris found in the Rothschild painting as well as the spray of wild strawberries. They are in Geneva, Musée d’Art et d'Histoire; Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum (fig. 1); and formerly Vienna, Julius Kien collection (restituted to his heirs and sold, London, Sotheby’s, 5 December 2012, lot 35; see fig. 2).7 Of these, the latter is on a panel  originally of very similar size to the Rothschild picture (66.2 x 51 cm), while both the Geneva and Cambridge paintings are on smaller panels. Their compositions are more cramped however, and it is possible that the proportions between the blooms are common to all. Furthermore there are greater differences in the colour schemes between the Rothschild prime version and its replicas, giving rise to the possibility that the design may have been at least partly transferred from it to them by means of tracing, and the blooms painted from memory and not ‘alla prima’. Ertz dates all of them circa 1607–08, presumably on the grounds that there is no discernible chronological progression within the group, whereas other works securely datable to the end of the decade show stylistic and compositional developments. A small still life of flowers in a glass vase in Milan, dated 1608 marks such a move towards a sparser composition, and that work, named the Mailänder Blumenglas by Ertz, paves the way for the other celebrated Brueghel flower-piece in Vienna, the so-called Wiener Tulpenstrauß, which Ertz dates circa 1608.8   

While there is ample evidence that Brueghel’s flower pieces were highly prized from the outset by Borromeo, and presumably too by his other Italian patrons, it is not until the second decade of the 17th century that we find them assessed and praised by northern Europeans. On 1st November 1617 George Gage wrote to Sir Dudley Carleton, English ambassador in The Hague, contrasting Brughel’s flower pieces with those of Jacques de Gheyn, who worked in The Hague: ‘wee preferre by much Brugel, because his thinges have neetnesse and force, and a morbidezza, which the other hath not, but is cutting and sharpe (to use painters phrases), and his thinges are to much ordered.’9 Gage’s use of the word morbidezza is telling. This is one of the first uses of the word by an English writer, but presumes his correspondent would understand it. A few years later Sir Henry Wotton, who had been in The Hague in about 1615–16, offers a useful pointer to how the word was understood: ‘Sculpture hath a kind of tenderness calld by the Italians Morbidezza’.10 What Gage meant was a sweetness or softness – or by contrast with De Gheyn, an absence of harshness – in the rendering of flowers. Brueghel used strong colours in his paintings: the yellows, reds and blues in this painting are particularly striking, but he used them in an endlessly subtle way so that the overall impression, though strong, is one of delicacy and refinement. Perhaps more than in palette however, Gage probably sensed morbidezza in Brueghel’s highly distinctive shimmering brushwork. This is immediately apparent in the Rothschild painting, in which all the natural elements – both flowers and leaves – are painted with the energetic, shimmering line that so strongly characterises Jan Brueghel’s own work, and marks it far apart from his son, his studio assistants and all his followers and imitators. The vibrant brushwork has an immediacy that perfectly conveys the painter’s energy and excitement at what he is creating, as well as his sureness of touch and complete self-confidence. These characteristics define his genius.

Schloss Schillersdorf  (Šilheřovice; fig. 4) was a Rothschild castle in Silesia, until the aftermath of the 1st World War in the region of Silesia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and then in Czechoslovakia (now in the Czech Republic, in the Moravian-Silesian Region). It is situated on rising ground overlooking the west bank of the river Oder, its former demesne bordering modern Poland.11 Salomon Mayer von Rothschild (1774–1855) acquired the estate in 1842, the year before he purchased the nearby Witkowitz iron works at Ostrava-Vítkovice, on the other side of the Oder. He appointed the architect Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur to renovate the property. Over 350 acres were carved out of the estate (which had included 11,000 acres of woodland) to make the park. Over 100 men were hired to excavate the large lake which it was hoped would attract wild duck. Plants were regularly shipped to the Schillersdorf estate from Rothschild cousins in England.12

His ownership of Schillersdorf was brief however. Following the upheavals of 1848 he handed over his family’s Viennese house to his son Anselm Salomon von Rothschild (1803–1874), and retired to his Parisian château Suresnes. Anselm von Rothschild remodelled and modernised Schillersdorf, installing modern machinery, including a steam pump which brought water from the river Oder, feeding an extensive system of underground irrigation. The estate was noted for its varied and plentiful game, and was much enjoyed by guests. When Anthony de Rothschild visited from England in 1869, he wrote to his brothers: ‘Schillersdorf is a very fine estate… The house is very comfortable, very much in the style of the old house of Ferrières. The park… has been laid out recently like Regents Park. There are magnificent woods of fir trees of thousands of acres all outside, so that shooting is excellent and the drives and rides charming’.13 Schillersdorf passed to Anselm’s son Albert (Salomon Albert Anselm von Rothschild, 1844–1911), and thence to Albert’s second son Alphonse Mayer von Rothschild (1878–1942). At the time of the Anschluss, Alphonse and his English wife Clarice were in London. They travelled to Switzerland to meet their daughters, before returning to England and travelling onwards to America, where Alphonse died in 1942.

It is not clear when the Brueghel entered the Rothschild collection. In the Brueghel literature it is implied that it was in the ownership of Baron Alphonse von Rothschild in 1911, which was the year his father Albert died. It is given no attribution in the Schillersdorf inventory which is undated but appears to have been drawn up after 1916, and is merely described there as ein Blümenbouquet in einer Vase auf Holz gemalen, im schwarzen Rahmen mit vergoldeten Leisten (‘a bouquet of flowers in a vase painted on wood in a black frame with gilt borders’). This description matches its current frame. While signatures are recorded in the inventory, no attributions are given, so we should not infer that the painting was anonymous. Both Anselm and Albert collected paintings, and it is highly likely that the Brueghel entered the Rothschild collection through the agency of one of them, although it could easily have been acquired earlier. The inventory locates it as no. 2684 in the north wing corridor on the first floor, in Room 26. This corresponds with the Schillersdorf label affixed to a stretcher bar, with printed number 2684, and inscription in red ink: XXVI (see fig. 3). An inscription in blue on a vertical bar of the cradling on the reverse of the panel gives a likely alternative location at another date: Kleiner Salon Thür Links (‘Small saloon left of the door’).

Both Marie-Louise Hairs in 1985 and Klaus Ertz in his first catalogue raisonné, published in 1979 (but not in the more recent revised version) listed this picture as having belonged to Julius Kien, Vienna, before Alphonse von Rothschild owned it. Both however seem to have confused it with Ertz' following number (167), an autograph replica of the present work, which belonged to Julius Kien in Vienna until 1938, and which following its restitution to Julius Kien’s heirs was recently sold at Sotheby’s  in London, 5 December 2012, lot 35. Ertz cited the same Vienna 1930 exhibition number for both pictures (Vienna, Secession, Drei Jahrhunderte flämische Kunst 1400–1700, 1930, no. 9).

The reverse of the panel is cradled using pine. Both the labels and the inscription in German giving a location are on the cradling bars, so the cradling was clearly done while the painting was in Rothschild ownership.


1. Oil on copper, 65 x 45 cm., Milan, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana. See Ertz, 200810, pp. 90913, no. 431, reproduced.

2. ‘tanta per la naturalezza come anco della bellezza et rarita de vario fiori in questa parto alcuni inconita et non peiu visto: per quella io son stata a Brussella per ritrare alcuni fiori del natural, che non si trove in Anversa’. See Chong and Kloek 1999, pp. 11213, under cat. no. 3, n. 1.

3. ‘in detto quadro ho fatto tanto quanto sapir farre. Credo che non sia mai fatto tanto raro et vario fiori, finita com simila diligensa: d’inverna farra un bel vedere: alcuni colori arriveno appressa poca il naturel’. See Chong and Kloek 1999, pp. 11213, under cat. no. 3, n. 2.

4. ‘Gli fiori besoigni fara alla prima, sense desseigni o boitssaturo: tutti fiori vengeno in quatra mesi, et sense invencioni besoigni giungere in seime con gran discretcion’. See Chong and Kloek 1999, pp. 11213, under cat. no. 3, n. 7.

5. Cardinal Federico Borromeo, in Pro suis studiis, Milan 1628.

6.  See Ertz 200810, pp. 91319, no. 432, reproduced.

7.  See Ertz 200810, p. 923, nos 435, 436, 437, all reproduced. Slavíček noted a copy in the Art Institute of Chicago (Slavíček 2000, p. 96, under no. 63).

8.  See Ertz, 200810, pp. 89092, no. 420, reproduced and pp. 930–32, no. 440, reproduced.

9.  Quoted in Chong and Kloek 1999, p. 112 and p. 113, n. 11.

10. Sir Henry Wotton, The Elements of Architecture, 1624.

11. The Schloss Zámek Šilheřovice is now available for rent for special events, and its park has been turned into a golf course.

12. The Rothschild Archive (https://family.rothschildarchive.org/estates/54-schillersdorf)

13. Idem.