Jan Brueghel the Elder trained with his maternal grandmother and developed a remarkably versatile career, earning international renown for his atmospheric landscapes, detailed flower still lifes, and intricate history and genre scenes, often on a small scale. After traveling to Italy and working under the patronage of Cardinals Ascanio Colonna and Federico Borromeo, he returned to Antwerp. In 1606, Jan was named court painter to the Archdukes of the Netherlands, Albert and Isabella, and retained this title for the remainder of his life. Around this same time, he began to collaborate with cabinet painter Hendrick van Balen on paintings of religious figures such as the Virgin Mary surrounded by flower garlands. Van Balen had also traveled to Italy and resettled in Antwerp, where he worked with Jan and other fellow painters including Peter Paul Rubens and Joos de Momper, and eventually taught Anthony van Dyck and Frans Snyders in his workshop.
The painting’s copper support bears a remarkably well-preserved coppersmith’s mark on the reverse, indicating that the plate came from the workshop of Peeter Stas in Antwerp in 1606 (fig. 1). Stas's personal monogram appears inside a horseshoe along with his full name, a rare iteration of his mark recorded only a few times around 1606. Below the mark and date is a small handprint known as the hand of Antwerp, which marked fine goods like copper as compliant with export laws and as the work of an established craft guild member. After Jean Squilbeck's 1952 article mentioning the present painting as an example of the unusual 1606 mark, nothing was known of the painting, until now.1 The coppersmith mark, considered in combination with style and composition, allows us to date the present work to 1606 or very shortly thereafter, during the beginning of Brueghel’s tenure as court painter to the Archdukes and the beginning of the partnership between Brueghel and Van Balen.
Each painter’s contribution to their collaborative works varied; in the present case, Brueghel contributed the landscape and still lifes, while Van Balen designed the figures, but in other depictions of feasts of the gods, Van Balen determined the composition as a whole and Brughel added smaller natural details later. The 1608 version of The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis in Dresden’s Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (fig. 2) closely resembles the present picture in terms of compositional arrangement and gradations in lighting, and also bears a Stas mark.2 Like in the Dresden picture, a god and goddess recline in the shadow of the tree at the lower left foreground, with a patch of high grass beside them, and the central narrative is more clearly lit in the center background. In the present lot, the banquet table with its still life of dishes and chalices juts into the landscape diagonally to the left, where a parade of revelers led by Dionysus enters; the arrangement is mirrored in the Dresden painting. In both paintings, a seminude goddess with blue drapery sits at the near side of the table facing away from the viewer—in our painting, the goddess is Hera with her peacock, arguing with Athena, and in Dresden, she is Aphrodite with Eros. The striking similarities between the two paintings and their respective copper marks suggest that the present lot is the earlier picture.
In later treatments of the Wedding of Peleus and Thetis or Feast of the Gods, Brueghel and Van Balen would depict figures of a uniform size, gradually moving toward larger and fewer figures in more centralized compositions with a focus on the narrative. In comparison, the Louvre’s later version of the same subject, dated 1618 (fig. 3), lacks the repoussoir tree and shadow, and the gods, goddess, and putti symmetrically approach an evenly lit, central banquet table.3
The subject matter of this copper proved the two artists’ erudition by allowing them to demonstrate their knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology. While at first the painting seems to depict a merry wedding party intended for the patron’s enjoyment, the early modern viewer would in fact understand several complicated stories and themes by reading into the narrative. According to Homer, Zeus and Poseidon had courted Thetis but were ultimately scared away by the prophecy that Thetis’s son would be mightier than his father, and the mortal Peleus won over the demigoddess. All of the gods gathered on Mount Pelion for a grand feast to celebrate the nuptials, complete with singing, dancing, and supernatural wedding gifts. The wedding itself, however, often served as merely an artistic backdrop for another, better-known story from ancient mythology: that of the Judgment of Paris.
Brueghel and Van Balen’s composition shows Eris, goddess of discord, angry at the gods for not inviting her to the festivities, dropping a golden apple onto the wedding table. The apple was labeled “for the fairest,” and sparked a rivalry among the three most beautiful goddesses: Aphrodite, Hera, and Athena, who asked Zeus to judge them. Zeus delegated the daunting task to Paris, the mortal Prince of Troy, and each goddess offered Paris a different prize to influence his decision. Athena, goddess of wisdom and warfare, offered skill and knowledge in war, Hera, wife of Zeus, offered to crown Paris King of Europe and Asia, and Aphrodite, goddess of love, offered Paris the most beautiful woman in the world. The latter proved impossible for Paris to pass up. Paris had his heart set on the incomparably beautiful Helen of Troy, who was inconveniently married to King Menelaus of Sparta. Paris’s taking of Helen, “the face that launched a thousand ships,” would incite the Trojan War. A sophisticated 17th-century viewer would recognize in the stream of light carrying Eris toward the banquet table the suggestion of these coming events, while the wedding revelers have not yet realized that they have been thrust into a supernatural battle.
This lot is accompanied by a certificate from Klaus Ertz, dated 2018 and endorsing the attribution to Jan Bruegel the Elder and Hendrick van Balen.
1. See J. Squilbeck, in Literature, and J. Wadum, in Literature.
2. See K. Ertz & C. Nitze-Ertz, Jan Brueghel der Ältere (1568-1625) : kritischer Katalog der Gemälde, Linden 2008-2010, vol. 2, pp. 806, 808, cat. no. 403.
3. Ibid., pp. 809-10, cat. no. 404.
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