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