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Jan Brueghel the Elder

Country landscape with travellers

Copper: 12,8 x 17,8 cm

introduction

A virtuoso of small-scale painting, Jan Brueghel the Elder delved extensively into the theme of the "arrival at the village", responding in this way to the ever-increasing commissions for such works. In fact, several variations of Country landscape with travellers are known, works that bolstered the artist’s renown. In any case, in their technical perfection and sumptuous palette, each of these paintings forms a unique work of art. In order to paint this small-format copper panel, Jan Brueghel used an especially fine brush. Each brushstroke is so delicately applied that the slightest detail is captured. Viewing the work through a magnifying glass, one can appreciate the minute care with which the artist has rendered the figures, animals and foliage, the colour and density of which is enormously varied.

We are witnessing a development here in the relationship between the viewer and the work, of quite a different order than that of the landscape painting of the 16th century. The viewer no longer looks towards the lower edge of the painting to see the action taking place, as in the work of Pieter Brueghel the Elder, but he is drawn into the space of the painting, as if becoming one of the travellers in the foreground, although the painter creates a slight distance between the viewer and the subject portrayed by giving him an elevated point of view. It is this effect that lends this landscape its special character, ranking it among the progressive and avant-gardist compositions painted by Jan Brueghel the Elder. Indeed, the sequence of grounds, one after another, according to the strict rule of the division of colours brown-green –blue typical of the painting up until the beginning of the 17th century is abandoned here in favour of a uniform approach to colour and space, with forms tending to run horizontally. The compositional plan of this Arrival at the village is quite simple: a curving road, with figures, leads to the entrance to a village with a central vanishing point; there is a low horizon and a blue sky, enlivened by the sun and some delicate clouds. A second vanishing point, running from the centre of the composition towards the right, subtly diverts the viewer’s gaze and leads it towards a luminous perspective vista.

The painting is full of elements that are typical of Jan Brueghel the Elder, showing his characteristic love of charming and amusing detail. The relatively sparse use of isolated motives which bring a certain agitation and life to the idyllic village scene, is appropriate to the small scale of the picture. What is lost in diversity however is well compensated for in a new, modest quality, seeming more befitting of the houses. The small figures, with their brightly-coloured clothing, create bright accents. For most of these characters, counterparts can be identified in the other artist’s paintings or drawings, making them something like his hallmarks. This recognisable repertoire of motives includes the herd of cattle being led to a pond by a farmer’s wife holding a child by the hand, an isolated motif which also appears, for example, in the Flooded village street on display at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. The same goes for the travellers, such as the woman who walks along carrying her load on her head, who appears in the composition Vast landscape with travellers at the Saint Louis Art Museum in St. Louis; and others being drawn in a wagon, or on horseback.

The most remarkable aspect of all of the various versions painted by the "Velvet" Brueghel is this warm and engaging character with which he portrays his fellow man.

Provenance :
Johnny van Haeften collection;
Private collection.

Littérature :
K. Ertz, Jan Brueghel der Ältere (1568-1625), Die Gemälde mit kritischem Oeuvrekatalog, Köln, 1979, pp.51 to 62;
K. Ertz, Jan Brueghel der Ältere (1568-1625), Die Gemälde mit kritischem Oeuvrekatalog, Köln, 2008, p. 358 (illustrated), p.360.