Although there is no shortage of bibliography on the artist, public opinion has not been kind to Pieter Brueghel the Younger. From the time that Carel van Mander dismissed him in a sentence or two until the mid-twentieth century, his substantial oeuvre was routinely described as merely copies of his father’s compositions. Georges Marlier’s 1969 catalogue raisonné was the first attempt to canvas all categories of this prolific artist’s output. Then in 1997 Klaus Ertz curated the exhibition Breughel – Brueghel where the work of Pieter the Younger and his younger brother Jan were hung side by side. Ertz’s two-volume catalogue raisonné appeared in 2000, listing 1,436 works, which the author separated into various categories of authenticity. In contrast, ‘Firma Brueghel,’ as the exhibition was entitled at its original venue in the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht, or ‘Brueghel Enterprises,’ as it was translated in the exhibition catalogue under review here, avoids questions of attribution, assigning the works studied simply to Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s workshop. The catalogue offers virtually irrefutable technical evidence of how that enterprise might have executed the hundreds of copies of Bruegel the Elder’s works which filled a seemingly insatiable demand in the early years of the seventeenth century.
Several essays provide a useful context for the operations of the workshop. Pieter van den Brink examines serial imagery prior to Bruegel the Elder, with a suggestive discussion of the copying practices in the shop of Bruegel’s putative teacher Pieter Coecke van Aelst which deserves to be pursued. In her essay “Did Pieter Brueghel the Younger See his Father’s Paintings?” Dominique Allart publishes 23 documents that mention compositions by Bruegel the Elder up through Pieter the Younger’s lifetime. While there is no hard and fast evidence, she concludes that it seems probable that the son, who was four or five when his father died, had no direct access to many of the paintings he copied. How then, did he reproduce his father’s compositions with such remarkable fidelity? In their respective essays Rebecca Duckwitz and Christina Currie come to similar conclusions: Pieter Brueghel the Younger had access to highly detailed, probably preparatory, drawings of his father’s compositions. Such a hypothesis has been proposed before, but never argued as convincingly as by these two young scholars.
Duckwitz here publishes the results of a 1997 infrared reflectography study of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Netherlandish Proverbs (Berlin, Gemäldegalerie), and compares its underdrawing to seven copies from Brueghel the Younger’s workshop. Significantly, some details exist on the finished Berlin panel which do not appear in any of the copies. For example, in the process of painting the panel Bruegel decided to add a man kissing a ring on the door of the tower – the sort of detail he usually prepared in the underdrawing, but here is not. None of the copies include this figure. Analogously, the man playing a fiddle in the pillory nearby is painted uncomfortably crouching on his knees in the Berlin panel. Bruegel had changed his mind; in the underdrawing he had pictured him more at ease with his legs extended, as he appears in all the copies. The conclusion that Pieter the Younger and his assistants copied highly detailed drawings which had been produced in Bruegel the Elder’s studio seems inescapable.
The evidence that Christina Currie collects from the copies of the Burssels Census at Bethlehem is almost as persuasive. In this case there are no significant details that the father drew on the panel and then changed as he painted, only to reappear in the copies. There are, however, transformations such as a hole in the ice which in the copies becomes a snow-covered rock that suggest it was a drawing, rather than a painting that Pieter Brueghel the Younger copied. The fact that virtually none of the colors in the copies follow the Brussels panel only strengthens that hypothesis.
No matter how convincing the arguments, the fact remains that no drawings of this type have survived. (The drawing of Dulle Griet now in Düsseldorf needs further study to determine how it might fit into this context..) An interesting sidelight that emerges is the role Mayken Verhulst, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s mother-in-law, seems to have played in the process. This artist, whom Lodovico Guiccardini described as one of the most prominent female painters in the north, probably took the two young brothers in at the death of their mother and her daughter. Van Mander recorded that she taught at least Jan how to paint in watercolor. She would have been the most likely guardian of the detailed drawings from her son-in-law’s studio, at least until the last decade of the sixteenth century, when the brothers started copying them. To a remarkable degree she reminds one of the widows of the Abstract Expressionist painters who, 450 years later and with considerable knowledge of how the art market operates, craftily constructed their husbands’ posthumous reputations.
Nina E. Serebrennikov