From whom acquired by Kunsthandel P. de Boer, Amsterdam, 1934;
By whom sold to Dr Hilten, Breda;
From whom bought back by Kunsthandel P. de Boer, Amsterdam, 1961;
Anonymous sale, Lucerne, Galerie Fischer, 26 June 1962, lot 2019;
Mme Roose, Antwerp;
Private collection, Switzerland, before 1969;
With Brod Gallery, London, 1969;
Charles de Pauw (1920–1984), Brussels;
By whom posthumously sold, London, Sotheby’s, 9 April 1986, lot 18, for £30,000;
Private collection, Rhineland;
Anonymous sale, Cologne, Van Ham, 30 October 1999, lot 1213, for DM 260.000;
With Johnny van Haeften, London, from whom acquired by Baron van Dedem on 19 March 2000.
Amsterdam, Galerie P. de Boer, Catalogue of Old Pictures, Summer – until 15 August 1961, no. 9;
Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brueghel. Une dynastie des peintres, 18 September – 18 November 1980, no. 83;
London, The Courtauld Gallery, Bruegel in Black and White. Three Grisailles Reunited, 4 February – 8 May 2016, no. 7.
G. Marlier, Pierre Breughel le Jeune, Brussels 1969, p. 91, cat. no. 8, reproduced fig. 36;
J. Folie, in P. Roberts-Jones (ed.), Breughel. Une Dynastie des peintres, Brussels 1980, p. 146, cat. no. 83, reproduced;
K. Ertz, in Pieter Breughel der Jüngere – Jan Breughel der Ältere. Flämische Malerei um 1600. Tradition und Fortschritt, K. Ertz (ed.), exh. cat., Lingen 1997, p. 91, under cat. no. 7, note 1, reproduced fig. 1;
K. Ertz, in Pieter Breughel le Jeune – Jan Brueghel l'Ancien. Une famille des peintres flamands vers 1600, K. Ertz (ed.), exh. cat., Lingen 1998, p. 51, under cat. no. 9, note 1, reproduced fig. 9a;
K. Ertz, Pieter Breughel der Jüngere (1564–1637/8). Die Gemälde mit kritischem Œuvrekatalog, Lingen 1988/2000, vol. I, pp. 380, 382, 384 and 445, cat. no. 362, reproduced p. 382, fig. 273;
P.C. Sutton, Dutch & Flemish Paintings. The Collection of Willem Baron van Dedem, London 2002, pp. 74–77, cat. no. 11, reproduced in colour p. 75;
K. Serres, in Bruegel in Black and White. Three Grisailles Reunited, K. Serres (ed.), exh. cat., London 2016, p. 44, cat. no. 7, reproduced in colour p. 45.
The subject is taken from the New Testament, John 8: 3–12: while Christ teaches the Scribes and Pharisees in the temple, a woman accused of adultery is brought to Him and He is asked to condone that she be stoned, in accordance with the Law of Moses. Christ then ‘stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not’. When they continue to question him, he ‘said unto them, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”’ The crowd, ‘convicted by their own conscience’, gradually disperse until Christ and the woman are alone and He asks her, ‘“Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee? … Neither do I condemn thee: go and sin no more.”’ In the present work, Brueghel simultaneously depicts the moments at which Christ kneels to write: ‘DIE SONDER SONDE IS / DIE W…’ (‘He that is without sin among you…’), the Pharisees engage Him and bend to discern His words, and the onlookers begin to steal away. Christ’s disciples stand behind Him, the woman herself is before Him, with wrung hands and contrite, downward gaze, some of the now obsolete stones at her feet, and amongst the bystanders, soldiers (some carrying stones) and other figures turn away.
In Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s grisaille painting the protagonists are spotlit, the rest of the crowd in shadow, creating a particularly subtle and mysterious atmosphere. The work is furthermore unusual within the Elder’s œuvre in being composed entirely of figures – albeit mostly heads, with bodies merely suggested in the darkness – without any landscape or background reference. The grisaille technique lends the scene the appearance of a sculpted relief and scholars have recognised in it a strong Italian influence. Bruegel is known to have travelled in Italy in the early 1550s with the miniaturist Giulio Clovio, but if he was deliberately evoking a more Italianate feel here he must have been looking to reproductive prints at the time this painting was executed. Marcantonio Raimondi’s engravings after Raphael’s Acts of the Apostles and Andrea del Sarto’s fresco of The Preaching of Saint John the Baptist (Chiostro dello Scalzo, Florence) have been suggested as possible inspirations, but there are parallels within Bruegel’s own body of work too – his frieze-like drawing of the Calumny of Apelles (itself based on the Classical description of the legendary lost picture by the Greek painter),5 or the Adoration of the Magi of 1564, in which the crowd converge around an empty foreground, the kneeling king particularly reminiscent of the figure of Christ here.6
The painting and subject, one of only three grisailles that Bruegel the Elder produced, appear to have held particular importance for the family.7 While in many other artists’ renditions of the theme Christ’s inscription does not appear at all, its prominence in Bruegel’s and his sons’ works is notable, as is its Dutch form (rather than Hebrew or Latin), suggesting it was clearly meant to be understood by contemporary viewers. Grossmann interpreted the work as the artist’s appeal for tolerance in a time of religious upheaval – tension in the Spanish-ruled Southern Netherlands was at its height in the mid-1560s, even resulting in a bout of iconoclasm in 1566 – but theories around Bruegel’s religious or political views must remain hypothetical.8
The original painting’s long presence in the family collection, however – the only work by their father still in the sons’ possession by 16099 – would certainly appear to imply that it was particularly prized, and also marks it as a rare example of one of the Elder’s paintings that was available to both sons in the original. On his death in 1625, Jan Brueghel the Elder bequeathed it to his patron Cardinal Federigo Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan, but the cardinal deemed the gift too generous and commissioned a copy before sending the work back to the family in Antwerp. It was then most probably sold by Jan Brueghel the Younger shortly afterwards in 1626–27.
While Jan Brueghel the Elder certainly copied his father’s grisaille directly, in 1628, when the present work was executed, the original painting was no longer available to Pieter the Younger, and so it would follow that he produced this composition based on previous copies or drawings he had made, as well as Perret’s engraving. The clarification of the background figures in the print, which the Younger typically characterises even more here, and the striped cloth covering the adulteress’ hair – which appears in the print, but not in the Elder’s painting – would appear to confirm this. In fact, Pieter Brueghel the Younger is not known to have produced any grisailles. As such, the present painting grants us a fascinating insight into the practices of the whole Brueghel family, and specifically into Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s artistic vision and interpretation of his father’s work.
The panel comprises a single plank of oak sourced from the Netherlands or adjacent lands. A tree-ring analysis conducted by Ian Tyers of Dendrochronological Consultancy found the last heartwood ring to date from 1608, indicating that the tree from which it was made was felled after circa 1616.10
1 See Ertz 1988/2000, pp. 384–86, cat. nos E362–365, F366–373, and A374–375, reproduced.
2 Oil on oak panel, 24.1 x 34.4 cm.; inv. no. P.1978.PG.48; see Serres 2016, pp. 30–37, cat. no. 3, reproduced p. 31.
3 The Courtauld Gallery, London; inv. no. G.1978.PG.81; see Serres 2016, p. 38, reproduced p. 39. The print was probably executed in the same sense as Bruegel’s original so that Christ would be shown writing with his right hand.
4 Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek; inv. no. 1217; see Serres 2016, p. 40, reproduced p. 41.
5 The British Museum, London; inv. no. 1959,0214.1; see M. Sellink, Bruegel. The complete paintings, drawings and prints, New York and London 2007, p. 222, cat. no. 146, reproduced.
6 London, The National Gallery; inv. no. NG3556; see Sellink 2007, pp. 196–97, cat. no. 130, reproduced p. 196.
7 The other grisailles are The Death of the Virgin, circa 1564 (Upton House, Banbury), and Three Soldiers, 1568 (Frick Collection, New York; inv. no. 65.1.163); see Sellink 2007, p. 194, cat. no. 128 and p. 260, cat. no. 170, reproduced, respectively.
8 See F. Grossmann, ‘Bruegel’s ‘Woman taken in Adultery’ and other Grisailles’, in The Burlington Magazine, vol. XCIV, no. 593, August 1952, pp. 218-26, see especially p. 226.
9 G. Crivelli, Giovanni Brueghel pittor fiammingo, o Sue lettere e quadretti esistenti presso l’Ambrosiana, Milan 1868, p. 119.
10 Report no. 1053.
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