Members of the Wittelsbach family were keen on the work of Jan Brueghel the Elder, and by the eighteenth century they had accumulated significant numbers of his works, and ones by members of his family, in each of their various electoral galleries. Because of this, the most important collection of Brueghel’s pictures today belongs to the Bayerische Staatsgemälde-sammlungen: forty-nine paintings that they consider autograph, and several dozen more by his studio or by family members. Other European collections also have large Brueghel holdings, but they tend to be specialized in a particular type of picture or period of his career: the Ambrosiana’s paintings, for instance, are mostly early and rather small works on copper commissioned directly from the artist by Federico Borromeo, while the Prado’s holdings include his largest works, many painted on canvas, commissioned by or for the Archducal couple in Brussels.
Munich’s collection covers every aspect of Brueghel’s oeuvre. They have small early works painted for Jan’s Roman patrons, and later works done for the Antwerp market; they have tiny paintings that relate to court patronage in Brussels, and large ones that were probably shipped to important patrons abroad. They have works that Jan executed himself, but also many that he did in tandem with another artist. The latter include pictures on which his friends and frequent collaborators Peter Paul Rubens and Hendrick van Balen worked, but also several done with his earliest collaborator, the German Hans Rottenhammer, and paintings collaborated on by artists Jan worked with only rarely, like Hendrick de Clerck, Pieter van Avont, and Sebastian Vrancx. There are moreover pictures by Jan’s famous father Pieter Bruegel the Elder and some surprisingly good ones by his less-gifted son Jan Brueghel the Younger; there are copies that Jan made of Pieter’s works, and ones that Jan the Younger made of Jan the Elder. There are even interconnected pictures by Jan and his brother Pieter the Younger that show how both brothers made use of their father’s studio estate. Munich’s collection is a capsule version of the vast multi-generational network at the heart of which Jan Brueghel operated.
No other collection could take their own Brueghels and make such an outstanding show from them. But Mirjam Neumeister produced much more than just an in-house exhibition. The numerous loans were carefully, even brilliantly chosen to make distinct and often unexpected points. When Munich owned a workshop copy, the original had been brought in to encourage you to think about the production mechanisms of Jan’s studio; when they owned a collaborative work on a given theme, a collaboration on the same theme with another artist had been placed beside it, or a collaboration with the same artist produced by a different working sequence. Variants by the workshop or by Jan’s son were exhibited too in order to make specific points, such as how Jan’s drawings became store-houses of motifs that continued to be used a full generation later.
The drawings themselves were thoughtfully selected and were integrated with the paintings (which has never been done before in a Brueghel show), hung like links in a chain between the various works that had borrowed motifs from them. Another remarkable set of works on paper were a group of gorgeous yet rather unsettling prints by Wenceslas Hollar, produced in the 1640s after Brueghel’s hunting imagery of several decades earlier, which showed another means by which visual patterns produced in Brueghel’s workshop spread far from their place of origin. These prints were displayed alongside Munich’s impressive collection of mythological hunting scenes on which Brueghel, late in his career, collaborated with Rubens and Van Balen, as well as works produced by the various artists’ assistants working together. Also in this room was the Vienna Hunting Hounds, one of the few oil sketches to survive out of many Jan is known to have produced, studies which would have provided painted models for use, by Jan himself but also by his studio assistants, in crafting paintings like those on display. Here and throughout the show, both the choice of loans and the ingenious hanging served to stimulate consideration of the processes by which pictures were produced by, around, and after Jan Brueghel, using workshop patterns and passing panels and canvases between one studio and another. This was a subject also investigated in important catalogue essays on the drawings (Louisa Wood Ruby), the collaborations (Anne Woollett, Jan Schmidt), and Jan’s technique of painting (Mirjam Neumeister, Eva Ortner, and Schmidt). The catalogue on the whole is a splendid production: it includes many micro-photographs of tiny details of Brueghel’s paintings, allowing the reader to vividly replicate the experience of extreme close looking that a Brueghel painting demands.
The first Jan Brueghel exhibitions in 1979 (Brod Gallery) and 1980 (Brussels) were organized largely by Klaus Ertz, author of two massive catalogues of the artist’s oeuvre. The Munich show is actually the first in thirty-four years not to be partly or entirely Ertz’s work, and it has a distinctly new flavor. One of the pleasures of Ertz’s shows, but also one of their problems, was their absorption of works from private collections which were exhibited as genuine whether they were or not. Because Ertz denied that Jan had studio help, every work had to be genuinely by him, or else genuinely by his son. The Munich show displayed few unknown works or ones from private collections; equally, it was not coy about the production of copies and variants by assistants in his workshop. The result was a more dynamic presentation, where process was as important as products, and where the transmission of visual ideas was considered as exciting as their invention – which reflects much better the reality of Brueghel’s artistic enterprise. What we see emerging is something different than, but complementary to, the picture of workshop practice that the 2001 Maastricht exhibition gave for the production of Jan’s brother, Pieter the Younger. The Munich show and its catalogue form a very important contribution to the project of investigating the generations of invention, repetition, emulation, variation, and dispersal of the Brueg(h)el family.
University of California, Berkeley