Collecting Guide: The Brueghel dynasty
As works by Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Jan Brueghel the Elder come to auction in London, Old Masters pictures specialist Alexis Ashot explores art history’s most tangled family tree across almost 200 years
For many people Old Master paintings conjure a scene of ribald peasant life by Brueghel, most probably without realising that there is a difference between son, sibling, century and even spelling. The reality is that the Brueghels formed a dynasty — a complex family of artists spanning almost 200 years from 1525 onwards, innovating but also revisiting the work of previous generations to create an enduring ‘brand’ Brueghel.
The familiar snowy scenes and Biblical or Classical images often convey multiple meanings, revealing the complexity of life in the Low Countries (present-day Belgium and Holland) in the 16th and 17th centuries, when rule by the Catholic Hapsburg Empire collided with the schisms of the Protestant Reformation.
The vision of this dynasty of artists is so vivid and recognisable that across the years they have influenced artists from Peter Doig to Jeff Koons, and inspired everyone from Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky and poets W. H. Auden and William Carlos Williams to David Bowie.
Who founded the Brueghel dynasty?
It all starts with Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525/30–1569), whose obscure origins are revealed in his surname, which literally means ‘small village’. An exceptional talent, he moved to Brussels as an adolescent to become the pupil of Peter Coecke, the official artist to the Hapsburg Court. Coecke would become Pieter’s father-in-law, thus ensuring his best student continued his business.
Bruegel later travelled to Italy and absorbed the influence of the Renaissance, but on his return he adapted his vision to the Dutch culture of the Low Countries. His pictures for wealthy patrons were highly individual, depicting peasant life in a sophisticated way — in works such as The Peasant Wedding Feast or Hunters in the Snow, both now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, he shows Flemish commoners with erudite and often subversive references to poetry, philosophy, politics and religion.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder was also the first artist known to have captured snowfall in oil paint. The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow is a wonderful evocation of a snowstorm, while The Bird Trap shows, in the foreground of a frozen landscape, a trap set before an open window; the unseen figure within serves as a complex metaphor for the divine.
How did his sons follow in their father's footsteps?
This is one of the great mysteries of the Brueghel legend — Pieter Bruegel the Elder died aged 45, having produced exactly 45 paintings. His sons — Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564/5–1637/8) (sometimes called Pieter Brueghel II) and Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625), so called because his own son, Jan the Younger, was later named after him — were both under five years old at the time of their father’s death, yet both became incredibly successful artists. There are various theories about who taught them. My favourite is that it was Mayken Verhulst, their grandmother, herself a highly skilled miniaturist.
Pieter Brueghel the Younger inherited the family business and painted repetitions of his father’s most famous pictures. For example there are more than 40 copies of The Bird Trap recorded by him. Pieter Brueghel the Younger lived into his seventies and produced almost 1,000 known paintings in total.
As his career progressed, he increasingly produced his own original compositions, further developing peasant subjects and landscapes and often including subversive elements. In his work The Netherlandish Proverbs, based on his father's 1559 composition of the same name, Pieter Brueghel the Younger has represented the performance of over 100 proverbs in a scene teeming with figures.
Among the absurd and often foolish characters is someone banging their head against a brick wall, another person throwing feathers into the wind and the blind leading the blind. Some of the lesser-known proverbs, such as ‘tiling one's roof with tarts’ have faded from use over the centuries.
One of his best original compositions, The Bad Shepherd (a masterpiece around which Christie’s built an exhibition in 2014), is an ambivalent version of the famous Bible story — you sympathise with the faithless shepherd for deserting his post, even though you’re not supposed to.
Did Jan Brueghel the Elder join the family business?
If Pieter Brueghel the Younger is the responsible son, Jan Brueghel the Elder is the rebel. He went to Italy for almost seven years and befriended many leading artists, including his subsequent collaborator, Peter Paul Rubens.
Jan Brueghel the Elder returned to Antwerp in 1600 and was at the cutting edge of what was happening in art. He was one of the first painters of still lifes, particularly flowers, and inherited from his father — or perhaps his grandmother — the ability to create incredible detail on a small scale.
Jan Brueghel the Elder’s Wooded Landscape, from 1610, highlights his skill for painting panoramic vistas. It is one of the largest works he ever executed on copper, which gives the paint a luminous quality, and was made while he was the court painter to the Governors of the Southern Netherlands.
Farther down the family tree, does this artistic talent disperse?
Eventually. Jan Breughel the Younger (1601-78) (sometimes called Jan Breughel II) imitated his father, and while some of the work is excellent, he had lots of assistants and their output has become confused. Subsequent generations — Jan Pieter Breughel (1628–after 1682), Jan Baptist Breughel (1647–1710), Ambrosius Breughel (1617–75) — are almost completely unknown.
The exceptions are the son of Jan Breughel the Younger, the amazing still-life painter Abraham Breughel (1631?–1680), and the highly accomplished David Teniers the Younger (1610–90), who joined the dynasty by marrying one of Jan Brueghel the Elder’s daughters.
What is the correct spelling for the name?
It is important to remember there were no definitive spellings at the time. The first version is Bruegel, used by Pieter the Elder, but in about 1615 Pieter the Younger adds an ‘h’ making it Brueghel, which is then used by subsequent generations and now denotes the whole dynasty. Later the ‘u’ and the ‘e’ are switched and this spelling is now used to denote lesser members of the family from Jan the Younger onwards.
How does the market for these artists differ?
Few, if any, works by Pieter Bruegel the Elder will ever appear on the market. There are occasionally discoveries, such as one made in Spain around ten years ago, which went straight to the Prado.
For Pieter Brueghel the Younger, however, there is a broad range of prices due to the number of works he created. His top price would be around £10 million for a real masterpiece, but you can also buy a very nice example for a few hundred thousand pounds. The rarity of works by his father makes collectors turn to Pieter Brueghel the Younger, and his work has never fallen in value in 400 years. Jan Brueghel the Elder was also prolific, and for both brothers the consistent quality, given the quantity of output, is remarkable.