Huon Mal­lalieu un­tan­gles the Bruegel clan, ex­plores the pain­ters’ in­di­vid­ual artis­tic de­vel­op­ments and is de­lighted to see some new dis­cov­er­ies of their work

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Huon Mal­lalieu tries to un­tan­gle the sprawl­ing Bruegel clan

The hol­burne Mu­seum’s ex­hi­bi­tion de­voted to the bruegel paint­ing dy­nasty is fas­ci­nat­ing from a num­ber of as­pects. That a com­par­a­tively small out-of-town mu­seum can pull in weighty loans from such lenders as the royal Col­lec­tion, the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum, new York and the ri­jksmu­seum is im­pres­sive. Con­straints of space, and also good sense, mean that the show is also com­par­a­tively small, pro­duc­ing a greater im­pact than many over­stuffed block­busters at grander metropoli­tan institutions.

It and Amy or­rock’s ac­com­pa­ny­ing book greatly ex­pand our knowl­edge of the fam­ily busi­ness and the so­cial con­di­tions in which it op­er­ated so suc­cess­fully over four gen­er­a­tions.

The ex­hi­bi­tion in­cludes works by the el­der Pi­eter (about 1525– 69), his fa­ther-in-law Pi­eter Coecke van Aelst (1502–50), per­haps mother-in-law Mayken Ver­hulst, sons Pi­eter the Younger (1564/5– 1638/9) and Jan the el­der (1568–1625), grand­son Jan the Younger (1601–78) and at least two great-grand­sons, Abraham (1631–about 1690) and Jan Kes­sel the el­der (1626–79). I may have

omit­ted one or two more of the clan, but, don’t worry, the dis­play is ad­mirably clear on the ge­neal­ogy.

It’s a pity that no un­doubted work by Mayken could be here. She was a re­spected minia­tur­ist and, af­ter the deaths of her hus­band and son-in-law, it was she who brought up and trained her young grand­sons Pi­eter and Jan.

We now have no ex­cuse for con­fu­sion be­tween Bruegel and Brueghel. Pi­eter the El­der used the ‘h’ un­til 1559, but then dropped it; his sons Pi­eter the Younger and Jan the El­der read­opted it to dif­fer­en­ti­ate them­selves. Ad­di­tion­ally, thanks to Dr Or­rock’s ap­pen­dix, we have a crib to the Nether­lan­dish proverbs that were favourite sub­jects. Many are still cur­rent in French, Ger­man and English as well as Flem­ish; oth­ers should be rein­tro­duced for their pun­gent top­i­cal­ity.

What we still do not know is much about Pi­eter Bruegel the El­der’s ori­gins, whether his tal­ent was in­her­ited or who, other than his fu­ture fa­ther-in­law, may have taught him. Born per­haps in Breda, he moved to An­twerp be­fore spend­ing three or four years in Italy. There, he was less in­flu­enced by artists than by land­scapes. He went as far south as Cal­abria and per­haps Si­cily and I have just no­ticed that the dis­tant port in his Fall of Icarus (not in the show) could plau­si­bly be based on Trani in Puglia. On his re­turn, he worked in Brus­sels and was taken up by the court, aris­toc­racy and bour­geoisie.

Nick­names have not re­ally served the fam­ily well. Con­tem­po­raries saw the in­flu­ence of Bosch in his re­li­gious sub- jects (ver­sions of which earned the younger Pi­eter the nick­name ‘Hell’ Brueghel), but, for the rus­tic scenes called him ‘Peas­ant’ or ‘Droll’ Bruegel.

Sim­i­larly, the el­der Jan was dubbed ‘Vel­vet’ Brueghel for his flo­ral still-lifes—a genre that he vir­tu­ally in­vented—but the word might make his su­perb tech­ni­cal skill seem some­how spu­ri­ous.

A won­der­ful bonus for the Hol­burne is the dis­cov­ery that two lit­tle-re­garded paint­ings in its col­lec­tion are gen­uine— ex­cel­lent works by the younger Pi­eter (1564/5–1638/9) and his cousin David Te­niers the Younger (1610–90). Both The Wed­ding Dance in the Open Air and Boys Blow­ing Bub­bles were filthy and con­ser­va­tion re­vealed their qual­ity. Fur­ther­more, clean­ing brought Te­niers’ sig­na­ture to light and the un­der­draw­ing of The Wed­ding Dance shown by in­frared re­flec­tog­ra­phy proved that the panel was au­to­graph Pi­eter the Younger.

He fol­lowed the pa­tri­arch most closely, if of­ten more crudely. Cru­de­ness, how­ever, is de­lib­er­ate, be­cause as well as pa­tri­ot­i­cally record­ing na­tive cul­ture as the re­volt of the Nether­lands against Span­ish rule gath­ered head, such lowly sub­jects ap­pealed to the so­phis­ti­cated rich. In­deed, as em­per­ors, arch­dukes and car­di­nals had bought up al­most all the Bruegels, the younger Pi­eter and his work­shop were keen to sup­ply rather cheaper Brueghels to the ris­ing mid­dle classes. Un­like his fa­ther, the el­der Jan was in­flu­enced by Italy and the clients he found there. He of­ten col­lab­o­rated with other artists, sup­ply­ing flow­ers and land­scapes to their fig­ures, most no­tably Rubens, with whom he worked on equal terms.

The show ends with a group of charm­ing in­sect stud­ies by the younger Jan van Kes­sel, to­gether with minia­ture land­scapes, dis­played as if on the doors and draw­ers of a col­lec­tor’s cab­i­net.

A motto for the ex­hi­bi­tion might be taken from the Latin verses on the en­graved por­trait of the pa­tri­arch, which trans­lates in part as: ‘Pi­eter, [you are] blessed in your spirit, as you are blessed in your skill… no less than any artist you de­serve glo­ri­ous re­wards of praise, ev­ery­where and from ev­ery­one.’

‘Bruegel: Defin­ing a Dy­nasty’ is at the Hol­burne Mu­seum, Great Pul­teney Street, Bath, un­til June 4 (01225 388569; www.hol­burne.org)

Next week: Joan Eard­ley at the Scot­tish Na­tional Gallery of Mod­ern Art

‘The el­der Jan was dubbed “Vel­vet” for his flo­ral still-lifes

Wed­ding Dance in the Open Air by Pi­eter Brueghel the Younger was re­cently con­served for the ex­hi­bi­tion by El­iz­a­beth Hol­ford

David Te­niers’ Boy Blow­ing Bub­bles. Bub­bles were used in 16th-cen­tury art to sig­nify the brevity and fragility of life

A Stoneware Vase of Flow­ers, about 1607–8, by Jan Brueghel the El­der. Flo­ral still-lifes brought the artist great wealth and recog­ni­tion

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