Pieter Bruegel the Elder has been under a brilliant spotlight for some thirty years – a light which has faded away many traditional notions about this artist. A concentrated look at Bruegel’s drawn oeuvre, begun by Matthias Winner and the late Hans Mielke and aided by the parallel efforts of An Zwollo, Joaneath Spicer, Martin Royalton-Kisch and others, has erased from the oeuvre significant groups of drawings. In turn, this has helped to reconstitute the work of other mid- to late-sixteenth-century artists who made landscapes and figure studies. Further, contextual and interpretative studies, such as those of Margaret A. Sullivan, Ethan Matt Kavaler, and Jürgen Müller, have reshaped our concept of this artistic personality from a naive peasant painter to a figure conversant in humanist discourses and a perceptive critic of his time.
This catalogue and the Rotterdam/New York exhibition it accompanied have provided many occasions to reflect on the Bruegel that has emerged from decades of scrutiny. A series of essays by its main authors comment on enigmatic aspects of his biography, his activities as a draftsman and an inventor of print compositions, the iconography of his graphic works, and his influence on contemporary and later artists. Martin Royalton-Kisch’s introductory essay (pp. 13-39) surveys Bruegel’s drawn oeuvre, with particular interest in the landscape drawings which have posed complex problems in connoisseurship. Royalton-Kisch provides a background for understanding the drawn landscapes, by means of detailed reflections on influences on the artist. These influences, which range from miniature painting to Campagnola and Titian, led Bruegel to particular formats and motifs. Royalton-Kisch’s essay is a considerable contribution to current scholarship, partly because the author had so many occasions to discuss attributions with the late Hans Mielke and to build a comprehensive rationale that merged Mielke’s ideas with his own. As a result, the essay presents an overarching picture of Bruegel’s formation and evolution as a draftsman, helping to fill the largest lacuna in the catalogue that Mielke left unfinished at his death [Pieter Bruegel, Die Zeichnungen. Edited by Ursula Mielke. Turnhout: Brepols, 1996; reviewed by K. Belkin in HNA Review of Books, vol. 15, no. 1, May 1998, p. 22].
Royalton-Kisch’s essay and the catalogue entries reveal that the oeuvre of drawings established by Mielke remains nearly intact. However, small variations in the tally of accepted drawings reflect emerging revisions to Mielke’s catalogue. Royalton-Kisch lists the number of authentic sheets as sixty-one (pp. 14, 30), a figure I was able to reach by not counting the drawn upon woodblock of Mopsus and Nisa (cat. 111) and what were once six but are now seven copies of lost drawings. [The latter group now incorporates the Solicitudo Rustica (cat. 25), connected with the large landscape prints, but now attributed to the Master of the Mountain Landscapes.] I presume the total count also does not include the newly attributed Rotterdam drawing, Journey to Emmaus (cat. 83), and a further attribution, The Damned (cat. 118). If it does, other drawings have been deattributed. On the other hand, Sellink mentions ‘sixty’ drawings (p. 57); while Orenstein gives the number as ‘about sixty-one’ (p. 41). References to the percentage of surviving vs. lost drawings vary more strikingly, stretching as far as a survival rate of ‘less than 1%’ (cited by Royalton-Kisch, p. 31).
The two new attributions were discussed during a Scholars’ Day at the Metropolitan Museum, on November 5, 2001. Royalton-Kisch’s arguments concerning the drawing, Journey to Emmaus, were convincing, particularly in connection with the Lugt Collection Rabbit Hunt, hung on the same wall (cat. 81). The Rotterdam drawing has rough, sketched-in additions in darker ink in the fore- and middle-ground. On the other hand, the attribution to Bruegel of The Damned is implausible. Many present at the Scholars’ Day brought up the possibility of this being by another sixteenth-century hand incorporating fifteenth-century motifs.
A new and seemingly sound attribution to Jan Brueghel is also discussed, in cat. 119: Landscape with Exotic Animals (Harvard). On the other hand, it was puzzling to find no serious discussion in connection with Jan of cat. 7, the accomplished copy with colored washes of Pieter Bruegel’s Mule Caravan on a Hillside, signed BRVEGHEL/1603 (Munich). Drawings illustrated in an article by Matthias Winner, cited below as an addition to the bibliography, would support this attribution. And further, I would argue for a broader review of mid- to late-sixteenth-century Netherlandish printmakers, to shift the attribution of the engraved Land of Cockaigne (cat. 116) away from Pieter van der Heyden.
Nadine Orenstein’s essay “Images to Print: Pieter Bruegel’s Engagement with Printmaking” (pp. 41-55) reconstructs the artist’s collaborations with printmakers and with the publisher Hieronymus Cock, on the basis of a careful study of preparatory drawings and finished prints. Orenstein also presented her findings at the Scholars’ Day, last November, and brought out a further significant aspect of the exhibition: the care taken to locate the best extant impressions of every print. In her essay, she argues that Bruegel’s manner of drawing evolved in connection with the particular engravers to whom he sent drawings. For Pieter van der Heyden, who seems to have required detailed direction, Bruegel painstakingly filled in exact progressions of shading and surface textures. On the other hand, the drawings made for the more sophisticated Philips Galle left more decisions to the engraver.
I would argue that this discussion could be extended to the area of subject matter. Recognizing Van der Heyden’s unusual knack for conveying the sometimes doltish, sometimes bizarre character of peasants and Boschian grotesques, Bruegel seems to have sent many more of these compositions to that engraver. Galle, on the other hand, in keeping with his more sober and subtle manner, excelled at compositions of a more serious nature – particularly those of deeply spiritual content, such as the Resurrection of Christ, and the Death of the Virgin (cats. 97, 117). In contrast, the droll figures in The Alchemistand Spes (cats. 61, 71) seem to stretch his skills at rendering caricatures. Likewise, Frans Huys, who conveyed moving forms with such grace, was well matched with print compositions of skaters and sailing ships. It would surprise me if these observations had not been made before by other scholars. In any event, the picture that emerges of a subject-oriented employment of printmakers would modify some assumptions regarding the character of these working relationships: for example, that reflected in the statement that Bruegel’s “trusting relationship with printmakers came to an end in 1556,” with Van der Heyden’s first engravings (p. 45).
But the focus on a specific hypothesis at the expense of the broader picture is perhaps unavoidable in a catalogue that is written in a short period of time and yet seeks to move beyond generations of previous scholarship. As a further example, both Royalton-Kisch and Jürgen Müller describe Bruegel’s motivations in working after Bosch in purely practical, even cynical terms. Royalton-Kisch writes that “Bruegel, as we must acknowledge, was playing the tunes that his audience wanted to hear. His resurrection of Bosch was a strategy, perhaps initiated by Cock, for reaping the financial rewards of commercial success” (p. 28). Elsewhere in that essay, a characterization of Bruegel’s creative activity as a “balancing act between the apparent ‘modernism’ of his landscapes and ‘archaism’ of his other compositions” (p. 35) reflects unfavorably on the Boschian works. Further, in an introductory text on the Seven Deadly Sins (p. 145), Müller poses both commercial motivations and considerations of audience as the reasons behind Bruegel’s work in the Boschian mode.
All of this of course overlooks the sheer delight of invention that surfaces in these images. Bruegel must have taken great pleasure in emulating Bosch. In addition, we might surmise that Bruegel was consciously and playfully alternating stylistic modes in what would have been a very modern approach to artistic creativity. A point regarding Bruegel’s modes, one Boschian and one oriented toward naturalism, is in fact put forward in Manfred Sellink’s essay on Bruegel’s iconography (pp. 59-60). In addition, however, Boschian motifs provided both striking and subtle vehicles for Bruegel’s complex social and political commentaries. And finally, as his elite audience and the number of his imitators might testify, Bosch might have seemed in Bruegel’s day more avant-garde than archaic. Keith Moxey has argued that Bosch represented for that audience concepts of “invention, fantasy and genius in … an apparently hermetic art … [which] was nevertheless decipherable by a humanistically trained elite.” [Keith Moxey, “Making Genius,” in The Practice of Theory. Poststructuralism, Cultural Politics and Art History. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1994, p. 113.]
The question of what it meant to emulate Bosch leads us to ask what it meant to follow Bruegel. The final introductory essay, by Larry Silver, surveys Bruegel’s longterm influence on landscape drawings and paintings, and deeper meanings behind his winter scenes, kermises, and other landscape themes. Observations on Bruegel imitation and emulation in this essay as well as in the work of Nina Serebrennikov suggest that Bruegel followers of the late sixteenth century were running on a somewhat parallel course with the Dürer Renaissance in Central Europe. The patronage of Emperor Rudolf II in Prague provided the greatest impetus for the reproduction, copying and emulation of Dürer compositions, and this movement has been interpreted as a reflection of emerging concepts of art history and cultural heritage. Roelandt Savery, identified by Silver as one of Bruegel’s leading ‘epigones,’ worked for Rudolf II, and Aegidius Sadeler engraved the portrait of Pieter Bruegel that is mentioned in Silver’s closing section, while in the emperor’s service. The connection Silver discusses between the Bruegel portrait and artistic imitation was first made in an article by Bedaux and Van Gool, cited in the catalogue bibliography. This reviewer, however, added to that reading in articles dating back to 1988 and 1989, with the finding that the central motif of the print, the likeness of the son (Pieter Brueghel the Younger) to his father, is rooted in Seneca’s letter on imitation. [Limouze, “Aegidius Sadeler (1570-1629): Drawings, Prints and the Development of an Art Theoretical Attitude,” in Prag um 1600: Beiträge zur Kunst und Kultur am Hofe Rudolfs II. Freren: Luca Verlag, 1988, pp. 187-89; idem, “Aegidius Sadeler, Imperial Engraver,” Bulletin of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, vol. 85, no. 362 (Spring, 1989), pp. 9-10 and p. 21 n. 29.]
Omitted from the catalogue’s bibliography is Matthias Winner’s second substantial article on Jan Brueghel’s drawings: “Neubestimmtes und Unbestimmtes von Jan Breughel d. Ä.,” Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen,14 (1972), pp. 122-160. In addition, two further reviews of Hans Mielke’s 1996 catalogue went unmentioned: that by Gero Seelig in Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, 3 (1998), pp. 422-425, and my own inArt Bulletin Online (www.CAAReviews.org, June, 1999).
St. Lawrence University