Greatly appreciated and admired by his contemporaries, Jan Brueghel the Elder today is among the most underrated artists around 1600. In the diverse travel accounts of the time, Rubens, still highly regarded today, and Jan Brueghel are not only mentioned in the same breath but are recognized equally as outstanding representatives of painting. Thus in 1613 Thomas Sagittarius, who is quoted by Prosperetti in her Introduction (p. xv), placed Brueghel and Rubens on the same level.
Jan Brueghel, in conscious dissociation from his father, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, specialized in virtuoso, finely executed paintings in small format. He supplied a steadily expanding market of wealthy collectors with cabinet pictures, which because of their subtle paint application and glowing colors gave him the sobriquet ‘Fluweelen Brueghel’ – Velvet Brueghel. In 1610, when Jan was appointed court painter to the Archdukes Albert and Isabella, he was already a much sought after painter. After an apprenticeship in Antwerp, he had traveled to Italy where he had been supported by the cardinals Ascanio Colonna and Federico Borromeo. They appreciated his flower paintings and the small, partly fantastic landscapes, histories and genre scenes.
The fact that this once highly esteemed painter is gradually gaining a similar appreciation in today’s art-historical discourse is not least due to the more recent interest in the cooperation between Jan Brueghel and other artists, as shown in the exhibitions and their accompanying catalogues in Kassel (2004) and Los Angeles and The Hague (2006). Yet Prosperetti’s book is the first English language monograph on the artist. The volume is divided into seven chapters, the first introducing Jan Brueghel as “painter of rural prospects.” Unlike those scholars who classify Brueghel’s landscapes according to recurrent representational formula or stylistic characteristics, Prosperetti investigates the meaning of these images. With this goal in mind, the first chapter sets out to prove that “Brueghel was a major figure in the transformation of traditional scenery that takes the experience of being-in-the-world as its primary theme. His mission was to create modern versions of the traditional wisdom genres.” Prosperetti’s simplified thesis that the local traditions which served as Brueghel’s starting point are limited to the ‘journey-of-life’ imagery ignores all those positions that document for landscape representations a wider spectrum of functions and meaning. For example, a for the modern viewer seemingly fictional representation may well have been understood as a portrait of a specific landscape, and thus open to diverse interpretations.
However, Jan Brueghel’s predecessors are not Prosperetti’s central subject. Her somewhat simplified and abbreviated discussion becomes understandable when we realize that her goal is to give as precise a description as possible of the characteristics of Brueghel’s pictorial form. In concise examinations of five images the author demonstrates in exemplary manner why and for what the ‘pictor florum et ruralium prospectum’ was appreciated by his contemporaries. These analyses are the starting point for the thesis that the development of the new landscape genres took place parallel to the development of a philosophical culture that had its origin in antiquity. The writings of Boethius, Petrarch, Sebastian Brant and Erasmus, in which Christian thought is combined with ancient philosophy, led to the stoic concepts of Dirck Volckertsz. Coornhert and Justus Lipsius. According to Prosperetti, this developing philosophical attitude provides the foil against which Brueghel’s landscapes and their motives should be understood.
In the second chapter the author tries to construct a bridge between the development of specific pictorial forms and genres and the theological and philosophical discourses of the time, taking the “Art lovers in their cabinets” as her starting point. The following five chapters are devoted to different landscape forms and individual motifs , from (3) “Burning cities, red-hot forges and time pieces: commonplaces of experience” to (4) painted meadows, (5) the “Tower of Scipio,” the “vegetal lexicon” of an (6) “Anatomy of greenery” and the “updating of the wayfaring topos” in (7) “Spokes and felloes.” The book closes with a short Epilogue.
The difficulty in reviewing this book above all lies in Prosperetti’s basic thesis that the development of landscape painting “began with the close relationship between rura and philosophy as a way of life” (p. 227). This is a well argued explanation but it is not the only one. It is indeed true that Jan Brueghel’s visual repertoire may be read and understood in the context of contemporary philosophy, but the author remains somewhat imprecise in the historical-philological part of her book, as for example in the cited texts by Justus Lipsius, as well as in her visual argumentation. It is entirely correct that Lipsius was among the most read philosophers of his time, but contemporary reception was not limited to De constantia libri duo, the only text extensively cited by Prosperetti. How useful the discussion of other texts can be for the understanding of the intellectual life in Antwerp at the time of Jan Brueghel is shown by Christiane Lauterbach (Gärten der Musen und Grazien. Mensch und Natur im niederländischen Humanistengarten, 1522-1655, Munich/Berlin 2004; reviewed in this journal, April 2005). There we not only find the confirmation that the Christian structure of Lipsius’s thinking is aligned with Petrarch and Erasmus but also a convincing rebuttal of the repeatedly stated polarity between humanistic or Christian, or epicurean or stoic view points. Lauterbach’s systematic discussion of the literary, philosophical and historical concepts of the perception of nature in the early modern period would have offered Prosperetti a fruitful approach for further evidence.
The same can be said for the reading of Lipsius’s letters, already much perused during his lifetime. They show that for the philosopher the contemplation of nature meant above all the natural process of birth and decay. Beyond that, his Christian-stoic natural philosophy was supported by his belief in a principle of order that ruled the entire cosmos, whose intelligence and beauty offered the opportunity for reflective contemplation and the greatest admiration. Beyond Lipsius, the author would have benefited from expanding the canon of ancient writers.
The present critical comments are not meant to demand a hardly attainable completeness but are intended merely to point out that the literary references in Brueghel’s circle can be taken for granted. Thus the writings of the German author Sebastian Brant were much less known in seventeenth-century Antwerp than those of the stoic Marcus Aurelius – especially popular in Rubens’s circle – whom Prosperetti does not cite. This second-century Roman emperor demanded in his Meditations (VII, 48) “that he who is discoursing about men should look also at earthly things as if he viewed them from some higher place; should look at them in their assemblies, armies, agricultural labors, marriages, treaties, births, deaths, noise of the courts of justice, desert places.” This is exactly the stoic view of nature that can be realized when contemplating the landscape images by Jan Brueghel discussed by Prosperetti. The author is an art historian, not a classicist or neo-platonist. But even in the discussion of images, Prosperetti lags behind the precise analysis of Brueghel’s paintings in the collection of Federico Borromeo offered by Pamela Jones (The Art Bulletin 70, 1988, pp. 261-272).
If we want to illustrate the Antwerp art cabinet as a place of intellectual discourse and philosophical conversations, there are more suitable examples than Willem van Haecht’s well-known Kunstkammer of Cornelis van der Geest, or the equally much illustrated paintings collection by Hans Jordaens III and Hieronymus Francken II. One such painting is by Frans Francken of 1618 (art market; see U. Härting, Frans Francken II [1581-1640], Freren 1989, p. 373, cat. 460) that in a slightly wider perspective shows an ideal Kunst- und Wunderkammer.In a library-like room at the right we see besides heavy folios a book on a table open to illustrations of fishes. At the centre of the main room, the actual art cabinet, are two paintings of the Madonna. Beside it, almost at ground level, hangs a history painting, above which can be seen two idealized portraits and a whole series of landscapes. A portrait of the diplomat Jan Neijen (1570-1612), perhaps the owner of the collection, stands against a chair. At various places throughout the room are shells, dried fishes and other conserved examples of flora and fauna. At the left, around a table with scientific instruments, are three men of whom two can be identified: the philosopher Justus Lipsius and the geographer Abraham Ortelius. The young man behind them, carrying a portfolio with graphic art, has so far not been identified.
The group of people around the table does not refer to an actual meeting. In 1618, Ortelius and Lipsius had long been dead. In the context of the Kunst- und Wunderkammer, the portraits of the two scholars should be seen as the visualization of the ideal collector, embodying the theoretical and practical knowledge of the Christian world order whose redemptive determination is warranted by the image of the Madonna in the centre. The young man with the portfolio may personify the artist who through his works promotes knowledge of the world, in the sense of cognito hominum as well as cognito orbis terrarum. In the context of the numerous landscape paintings beneath which Lipsius and Ortelius are seated, these works represent the possible ways in which the pictures and objects in the ideal collection may be read – pictures and objects which through Lipsius acquire antiquarian-philosophical, and through Ortelius geographic references. At the time, geography and philosophy, by way of the teaching and thinking processes of rhetoric and the fundamental belief in divine creation, were as closely connected as art and literature. This would agree with Prosperetti’s basic assumption, even though this assumption does not serve as the monocausal explanation of the phenomenon of landscape painting around 1600.
Thus the impression of Landscape and Philosophy in the Art of Jan Brueghel the Elder overall remains ambivalent. The quality of the illustrations leaves much to be desired and the coarsely digitalized images hardly convey what collectors and connoisseurs appreciated and admired in Brueghel’s paintings. But the well-written and inspiring text and the extensive index make Prosperetti’s book into a rewarding contribution to the literature on Jan Brueghel, without a doubt an unjustly underrated painter.
Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Künste Stuttgart
Translated by Kristin Belkin