From a slightly elevated viewpoint, Brueghel opens a window onto early seventeenth century Flemish life, particularly the daily life of a village settled on the edge of a river on a clear, crisp, summer’s day. The left half of the composition is dominated by an expansive waterway that pulls the eye into the depths of the landscape, from the jetty in the foreground, along the tree lined shore, to the faint outlines of ships on the distant horizon. Here, the water seamlessly blends into a light blue sky with feathered white clouds and a golden yellow sun. On the right half, balancing out the seemingly mirrored tranquility of the river and sky, is a bustling shoreline and landing site filled with colorful figures, animals, and remarkably drawn boats. Beyond and through the trees at right appears a quiet village with houses, wooden sheds, horse drawn carts, and, in the distance, the steeple of a church.
What adds another degree of grandeur to this multi-figure composition is the attention with which Brueghel has observed and captured not only the natural world around him, but also the minutia of the everyday. A few ducks with orange bills paddle around the shallow waters of the near foreground, their movement forming faint puddles around them. Two children in the boat nearby lean over the edge to observe a woman dipping a white cloth into the cool water. A gentleman in the same boat uses a steering pole to steady a another vessel in the shallows while a mother passes her child to another woman on board the already rather full boat. Two farmers relax with a basket of produce in the shade at right, as additional onlookers of various ages gather on shore beneath a line of lush trees awaiting the next vessel to carry them down the river. Saddled horses appear in two of the other boats, suggesting that the desired destination on the river is perhaps a kermesse or a festive gathering, to and from which the villagers may be traveling.
Towards the end of the sixteenth century Brueghel began to explore the theme of vast open seascapes near a shoreline as exemplified in a small oil on copper dated to circa 1592 in a private collection.1 By the first decade of the next century, however, he turned towards the more intimate river landscapes that employed an orthogonal body of water to order the rural scene by pulling the viewer’s eye to a vanishing point in the distance. This technique was first introduced by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Jan’s father, in his famous river landscape drawing of about 1556 now in the Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin.2 Jan’s familiarity with his father’s drawing, as well as this compositional device, is recorded both in a copy he made after his father’s work as well as in a comparable drawing of about 1600 in the Musée du Louvre, Paris.3 What is revolutionary about the present composition, however, is the way that Brueghel uses not only the river orthogonal but also introduces the steep diagonal of the shoreline to create a more realistic sense of space and depth that runs from right to left
The river landscape subject proved popular among Jan Brueghel’s clientele on copper and panel, particularly during the second decade of the seventeenth century. Unlike his brother Pieter Brueghel the Younger who responded to the popular demand by producing copies of his own works, Jan Brueghel the Elder approached each river landscape independently, always making variations to his compositions so that rarely any two were exactly alike. An early forerunner to the present painting is found in a copper datable to around 1604 in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes (fig. 1).4 While the two are related in terms of composition, the present painting, completed over a decade after, is more sophisticated in handling, particularly in the rendering of depth within the picture plane as there is a seamless transition foreground, to middleground, to background.
This painting can be more securely placed among a number of outstanding river landscapes by the artist signed and dated to the 1610s, nearly all of which are today in museums. A notable comparison can first be drawn between the present work and a river landscape of 1612 in the Indianapolis Museum of Art (fig. 2).5 Although it does not include the figures and boats in the right foreground, the Indianapolis example shares a near identical rendering of perspective, landscape, ships, and the village on the shore at right. Another correlation can be made with a copper dated 1615 in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich (fig. 3), in which Brueghel seems to capture the same village, but has pulled back slightly to capture more of the jetty and place a stronger emphasis on the foreground while still preserving the soft receding river at left.6 There is a clear progression from the Indianapolis to the Munich example, the present work seeming to serving as a midpoint between the two, and at the same time serving to add another layer of understanding to the way that the artist worked through the intricacies of his compositional types and variations. These aforementioned works are all oriented with water at left and land at right, but the present work can also closely be compared in handling, theme, size, and date to two other paintings of reversed compositional orientation that depict a river landscape with a self portrait of the artist. The first, also dated 1614, is on panel and can be found in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (fig. 4),7 while the second, dated 1616, is a copper sold at Sotheby's London on 9 July 2008, lot 19, for £3,513,250.8
This lot is accompanied by a certificate from Dr. Klaus Ertz dated 19 October 2017 confirming that this is an autograph work by Jan Brueghel the Elder and characteristic of the artist's output from 1614.
A Note on the Provenance:
This painting once formed part of the collection of the famed antique dealer, Joseph Altounian who lived from 1890-1954. In 1906 he established Altounian-Lorbet Antiquaires in Paris, and from about 1910-1940 he specialized in the sale of Egyptian and Greek antiquities, sculpture, and decorative arts. The painting then descended in his family until around early 2000, when it was acquired by the present owner.
1. See K. Ertz and C. Nitze Ertz, Jan Brueghel der Ältere, Lingen 2008, vol. I, p. 231, cat. no. 100, reproduced p. 232.
2. ibid., p. 248, reproduced fig. 1.
3. For Jan Brueghel the Elder's copy, see ibid., p. 248, reproduced fig 2; for the comparable version in the Musée du Louvre, see ibid., p. 57, reproduced fig. 4.
4. Inv. no. D.804.1.5.P, copper, 24 by 36 cm. See ibid., pp. 256-258, cat. no. 113.
5. Inv. no. C10011, oil on panel, 38.1 by 60 cm. See ibid., pp. 245-246, cat. no. 107.
6. Inv. no. 4891, oil on copper, 25.8 by 37 cm. See ibid., pp. 250-251, cat. no. 109.
7. Inv. no. 9102, oil on panel, 52 by 90.5 cm. See ibid., pp. 286-289, cat. no. 133.
8. Oil on copper, 25 by 36 cm. See ibid., pp. 284-287, cat. no. 132.
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