PIETER BRUEGHEL THE YOUNGER | The Payment of Tithes

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PIETER BRUEGHEL THE YOUNGER
(Brussels 1564 - 1636 Antwerp)
The Payment of Tithes
Signed and dated lower left 'P BRUEGHEL 1615'
oil on oak panel
78 by 125 cm.; 30 5/8 by 49 1/8 in.

$2,950,000

PROVENANCE
Ryhiner-Stehlin collection, Basel, Switzerland, since before 1920, from whom acquired by Johnny van Haeften;
With Johnny van Haeften, London, from whom acquired in 2004.


LITERATURE
G. Marlier, Pierre Brueghel le Jeune, Brussels 1969, p. 436, cat. no. 8;
K. Ertz, Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere (1564-1637/38). Die Gemälde mit kritischem oevrekatalog, Lingen 1988/2000, vol. I, p. 515, cat. no. F517 (as unseen by the author); C. Currie and D. Allart, The Brueg[H]el Phenomenon: Paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Pieter Brueghel the Younger with a special focus on technique and copying practices, Brussels 2012, vol. 2, p. 709, under note 10.


CATALOGUE NOTE

The Payment of Tithes, or The Country Lawyer, is a particularly fascinating and unusual subject in Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s oeuvre, since it does not derive from a composition designed either by his father, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, or one of his contemporaries, such as Marten van Cleve. A humorous take on the authority and practice of the law, it was clearly one of Brueghel’s most popular works, attested to by the more than ninety versions that exist, of which almost a quarter are considered autograph. Of these, the present painting is one of the largest and best quality. Dated 1615, it is also one of two of the earliest treatments of the theme, and extensive underdrawing, much visible to the naked eye, reveals numerous small adaptations between the preparation of the design and the painted surface, granting us an insight into Brueghel’s working technique.

Almost all the versions of The Payment of Tithes considered autograph are signed, or signed and dated, indicating that they were produced between 1615 and 1630. Most were executed before 1620 and at least five are dated 1618. Undated paintings may be distinguished by the forms of their signatures: two works bear the ‘Brueghel’ spelling, suggesting dates before 1616, and six are signed ‘Breughel’, the form used by the artist after this date.

Most iterations of the subject by Brueghel and his studio are painted on the smaller standard size panels used in Brueghel’s workshop, measuring around 60 x 80 cm.1 The present work is one of only four that are depicted on a larger scale, however, including the other earliest version; all four of these panels were produced in 1618 or before.2 A panel of even greater dimensions (115 x 187 cm.), also considered autograph, is dated 1617.3

Brueghel used panels of specific dimensions because his designs were transferred using tracings, a subject that has been explored in particular depth in recent scholarship by Christina Currie. The underdrawing visible in the present panel has been executed on the surface of the imprimatura – a preparatory layer brushed over the surface in advance of the painted surface itself – a practice typical of Brueghel and his workshop. Infra-Red Reflectography shows that the underdrawing in the present panel is carried out quite freely but, as with the other larger compositions, the placement of the main outlines was likely guided by a means of mechanical transfer, namely tracing. It is interesting to note, however, that the artist has deviated from the drawn outlines in several areas, most noticeably in the placement of several of the peasants’ feet. Close inspection of the painting also reveals a detail unique to this version of the composition – in all other iterations the lawyer wears a traditional dark mortarboard, whereas here this has been reduced to a skullcap, the form of the mortarboard just visible above this, having been painted out.

There is no doubt that the depiction of this subject benefits from the large size of a panel such as this one. The proliferation of figures, their expressions and interior details are all brought to life in the vivid expression enabled by painting on this scale. The present painting is also characterised by its exceptional condition, rare in a painting of this age and size, with the surface in an excellent state of preservation and the details still legible down to the smallest minutiae. In contrast to other subjects treated by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, versions of The Payment of Tithes are characterised by an emphasis on modelling to achieve three-dimensionality in the figures’ faces, clothes and the objects in the room. This is particularly apparent in the present work in the use of white highlights and graphic formal lines, and may reflect the sculptural, idiosyncratic nature of a lost prototype – the figural and facial types certainly contrast strongly with any found in the work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, for example.

Unlike many of Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s paintings, which look to his father’s works, the source of a possible prototype for The Payment of Tithes has been the subject of much debate. Jacqueline Folie was the first to suggest that Brueghel may have based his work on a design of French origin - an idea predicated on the fact that the calendar on the wall of the lawyer’s office is written in French and that the short beards and close-cropped hair of the peasants are of a type not seen in the Southern Netherlands at this time.4 An inventory of the collector Antoinette Wiael, from as early as 1627, also describes a panel painting by the younger Brueghel as ‘een franschen procureur’ (a French lawyer).5 It has been noted, however, that French was the official language of law in Flanders during Brueghel’s lifetime, and Dirk De Vos and Klaus Ertz both consider the theory possible but speculative, with Ertz attributing the invention of the design to Brueghel the Younger himself in the absence of any more convincing evidence.

The Payment of Tithes is a comment on the venality of the legal profession, and the sense of caricature here is particularly strong, even by comparison with some of the artist’s most satirical subjects. The poor and naïve are at the mercy of the lawyer’s blatant incompetence. Peasants have filed in and wait before his desk, the entire office in disarray and strewn with papers. The lawyer peruses a document, which one of the peasants appears either to be trying to convince him of, or argue against. A clerk sits just inside the door paying no attention to the crowded interior, which consists largely of men in attitudes of apprehension and deference - a couple partially shield their faces with their hats, while one particularly beleaguered-looking man approaches the desk with a dead chicken slung over his arm. Meanwhile a woman hunts inside a large wicker basket to find produce to offer as currency for the lawyer’s services, and a man hides behind the open door of the office, apparently spying through a knot in the wood.

The earliest engraving produced after this composition in reverse, dated 1618, by the
Nuremberg book and art dealer Paulus Fürst, illustrates a pamphlet attacking the corruption of lawyers and their ability to twist the law to their own ends. And the subject’s popularity also reached the Northern Netherlands, where artists such as Pieter de Bloot depicted the same theme in 1628, inscribed with the Dutch equivalent of the proverb: ‘Go to law for a sheep and lose a cow.’6

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1 As well as differences in size, versions of The Payment of Tithes may be distinguished by a couple of particular details in the background. Earlier works, such as the present picture, include plaited straw ropes beneath the window, while later works, dating between 1618-26, depict a dark cloth in this area. The colour of the sleeve of the man on the far left also differs according to date, with paintings dated between 1615-17 showing him with a grey-blue chemise, and later pictures with a red one (with two exceptions).
2 Neuilly, private collection, 1970, signed and dated 1615 (see Ertz 1988/2000, p. 501, cat. no. E489); Spain, private collection, 1998, signed and dated 1616 (idem, p. 501, cat. no. E490); and the painting offered at Sotheby’s, London, 6 June 2011, lot 11, signed and dated 1618.
3 Surati collection, Milan, 1937; see Ertz 1988/2000, p. 502, cat. no. E494.
4 J. Folie, Pieter Brueghel de Jonge, exh. cat., Maastricht 1993, cat. no. 7.
5 Transcribed in D. De Vos, Stedelijke Musea Brugge, Catalogus Schilderijen 15de en 16de eeuw, Bruges 1979, p. 95.
6 Inv. no. SK-A-660, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum; see A. Eichler et al., Spott und Respekt : die Justiz in der Kritik, Petersberg 2010, pp. 152-53, cat. no. 13.

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