Lot 34
  • 34

Pieter Brueghel the Younger

2,000,000 - 3,000,000 GBP
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  • Pieter Brueghel the Younger
  • Return from the Kermesse
  • signed lower left: P. BREVGHEL
  • oil on oak panel


With Hallsborough Gallery, London, 1963;

Anonymous sale, (‘The Property of a Gentleman’), London, Sotheby’s, 24 March 1965, lot 101, bought by ‘Patch’ for 9,000 guineas;

Senator Descamps Collection, Brussels;

From whose descendants acquired by Galerie de Jonckheere;

From whom purchased by a European private collector in 2000;

By whom sold New York, Sotheby’s, 27 January 2011, lot 171 for $4,562,500;

Whence acquired by the present owner.


The Hallsborough Gallery, London, 8 May – 21 June 1963;

Gallery Finck, Brussels, 26 November – 12 December 1965, no. 17.


Apollo Magazine, vol. LXXVII, May 1963, reproduced (in an advertisement for Hallsborough Gallery Exhibition);

G. Marlier, Pieter Brueghel le Jeune, Brussels 1969, p. 397, no. 4, reproduced in colour p. 394, fig. 243;

M. Diaz Padrón, 'La Obra de Pedro Brueghel el joven en España', in Archivo Español de Arte, 1980, p. 311;

K. Ertz in Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere – Jan Brueghel der Ältere. Flämische Malerei um 1600. Tradition und Fortschritt, exhibition catalogue, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Lingen 1997, pp. 423–24, under no. 145, reproduced fig. 1;

K. Ertz in Pieter Brueghel le Jeune – Jan Brueghel l'Ancien. Une Famille de peintres flamands vers 1600, exhibition catalogue, Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Lingen 1998, pp. 414, 416, under no. 150, reproduced fig. 150a;

Breughel–Brueghel, Tradizione e Progresso: una famiglia di pittori fiamminghi tra Cinque e Seicento, exhibition catalogue, Cremona 1998, p. 118, reproduced fig. 1;

K. Ertz, Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere (1564–1637/38). Die Gemälde mit kritischem Œuvrekatalog, Lingen 1988/2000, vol. II, pp. 886, 888, 918, no. 1309, reproduced in detail p. 888, fig. 720 (showing the bench that has since been removed [see note below]).


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. Return from the Kermesse. This painting is on an oak panel, which has been backed and cradled, probably in the middle of the last century. The edges have added strips on all sides and it is hard to tell how far the original panel has been thinned. However the painting is clearly structurally secure and stable. Two original joints can just be traced : one crossing the tree at upper right then running though the crowd at the church door, then just below the dancers and finally through a cottage at the left side. The lower joint runs through the dancers on the right and the man playing bagpipes. Short old cracks from the mid and upper left edge can just be seen, with a little minor old damage possible. However it is in the sky that there has evidently been greater past damage than elsewhere, visible under ultra violet light. The firm consolidation of the panel mentioned above was matched by a remarkably effective restoration, which has also aged well in tune with the original. The craquelure in the fragile upper areas has been particularly discreet and delicate, while the foliage was exuberantly filled out at top right. The original is finely preserved throughout the vivid detail of the scene below, with drawing characteristically visible in places even among the most minute figures in the distance, and powerful strength of line and meaning in the foreground dancers. 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 is one of the finest known versions of Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s Return from the Kermesse, a composition that enjoyed great popularity during the artist’s lifetime and which appears to have been entirely of his own design. Its beautiful state of preservation allows us to fully appreciate the superb draughtsmanship, understanding of gesture, colour, composition and story-telling that have ensured for Brueghel a lasting reputation.

It is a boisterous scene that greets us. A more than merry procession of villagers return from a kermesse, apparently still very much in the throes of revelry, with figures dancing to a bagpipe, a couple embracing in a horse drawn cart and a family returning home in the foreground, the child with a hobby horse underarm. The group makes its way down a muddy road riveted with grooves from cartwheels. While most of them dance to the bagpiper’s merry tune, the drink has got to the head of one young man who is propped up against the tree with his head in his lap, while another figure, an older lady, squats behind him to relieve herself in another way. Beyond this cast of principal protagonists the artist has depicted a village scene still bustling with life, the kermesse seemingly still in full swing: a group of ten figures link hands and dance merrily in circles; two men are on the point of a sword fight as one is withheld by a woman desperately imploring them to desist, herself perhaps the cause of the fracas; beyond them the more sedate activities of organised hockey and archery keep others out of trouble and in the central distance a group of parishioners are filing into or out of church. Brueghel has placed a tree trunk to the right of the revellers to divide the composition into two and in this smaller section we see a far quieter scene, a nearly empty avenue beside a canal populated by just a few couples stumbling home and a cripple begging alms from two women. It is a scene in fact in which one can find any number of narratives and which gives us a clear idea of the spirit of such occasions in early seventeenth-century Flanders.

The image was clearly in strong demand amongst the artist’s clientele, for he reworked the composition in three principal variants: the present type, with the stream and avenue of trees on the right of the composition; a second type with a broken tree stump in place of the full-height trunk in the right foreground, and the omission of the stream, a version of which is in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels;1 and a third type in which a tavern is situated in the right foreground, a version of which was with Johnny van Haeften, London, in 2000.2 Of the first type the present version presents the most open avenue of them all, the others with the two lines of trees touching in the middle so that they cover the gap of distant sky. The latter type, with the tavern, is strongly reminiscent of the composition included as lot 30 in this sale.

The genesis of the composition lies in a combination of sources. It is one of the few compositions devised by Pieter the younger himself rather than copied from his father Pieter Breugel the Elder. Ertz mentions several possible starting points but the clearest influence of them all is Marten van Cleve's drawing in the Uffizi (fig. 1).3 From that Brueghel has directly lifted several figures including the group of four figures in discussion lower left, the woman and the ill man she is tending at the foot of the tree, the bagpiper and the two dancing figures directly behind her (though in the Van Cleve the woman raises her right arm skyward), the two figures behind the main group who hold each other's arms aloft, the worse-for-wear couple behind and the cart climbing the rise.  To the right hand section of the composition, he has borrowed the woman crouching and the man next to her from an engraving by Pieter van der Borcht.4 For compositions not copied from his father such borrowing was standard practice for Brueghel. A second example of this practice is the following lot.

At the time the present work was published by Marlier in 1969, the colour illustration in his publication revealed the crouching figure of the woman on the right seated on a low bench. When the work was subsequently acquired by Galerie de Jonckheere, x-radiograph analysis revealed the bench to be a much later addition to the composition, which was then removed. Such practice is not uncommon with Brueghels, with prudish former owners often converting the seemingly ruder details of such scenes into something more mundane. Such is the case, for example, in a version of Brueghel’s Dance around the maypole in which the man relieving himself in the left foreground has had a spade put in his hands instead.

1. Ertz, 1988/2000, vol. II, p. 888, reproduced fig. 722, cat. no. 1298.

2. Ertz 1988/2000, p. 917, no. 1302a, reproduced.

3. Ertz 1988/2000, p. 886, reproduced fig. 716.

4. Ertz 1988/2000, p. 890, reproduced fig. 727.