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Pieter Brueghel the Younger

Peasants warming themselves beside the hearth

Panel: 23,5 x 34,5 cm
Maker’s mark on the back (clover leaf of Michiel Claessens)

introduction

The work of Pieter Brueghel the Younger is dominated by scenes of peasant gatherings and animated Flemish villages. These painted chronicles of bygone days play on the picturesque and truculent anecdotes, rendered all the more lively by the artist’s mix of sparkling colours and perfect technical mastery. The painter provides us with fascinating illustrations of a rural world with rich and varied customs. He shows us peasant life in the 16th and 17th centuries, while renewing the theme that had particularly inspired the painter and engraver from Antwerp, Pieter Balten (1525-1584), before him. Just like his illustrious father, Pieter Brueghel the Younger enjoyed a rigorous sense of observation, allowing him to depict the manners of his fellow citizens.

In his painting entitled Peasants warming themselves beside the hearth, Brueghel the Younger takes us inside a home bathed in a gentle intimacy, far from the sometimes turbulent vehemence of his scenes of popular jubilation. This winter version provides an invaluable account of a peasant family’s living environment and way of life. While Marlier attributes the origin of the iconographic formula to Pieter Balten, there is no doubt that this work belongs to Brueghel II.

The composition is light, very readable and arranged in a succession of planes that provide depth and ensure the cohesion of the whole. The viewpoint is slightly raised, allowing us to embrace the entire scene. The central subject, i.e. the fireplace where a large pot of stew is gently cooking over the fire, has been placed on the right. A group of figures in various poses surround this comforting hearth.

In the foreground of the vast room, three men are having a private conversation. One of them is sitting on a wooden bench. The hearth is flanked on the left by a couple kissing and on the right, a man is standing with his back to us, warming himself by the fire. The child facing us and stirring the contents of a pot seems to be rather close to the flames.

At the far end of the room, a woman is coming up from the cellar holding a jug, while another one is coming through the door, allowing us to see outside. In this snowy landscape, the ground merges with the sky offering a wonderful contrast with this warm and welcoming interior. Echoing this opposition is the remarkable use of the colour red, applied in touches to the protagonist’s clothes: a hat, a belt, a shawl, and a tunic with puffed sleeves. This warm tone resonates with the bright blue of the skirt worn by the woman entering the room. Pieter Brueghel II brilliantly makes use of this chromatic ambivalence, both in a symbolic manner and to guide our eyes through the scene.

The left-hand side of the painting is filled with numerous objects which tell us about the activities of a farm. A saddle is hanging on the wall, a trivet is holding a large sack of grain, and a log with an axe and a wedge is waiting to be chopped.

The painter enjoys weaving parallels between domestic life indoors and the outside world, which is somewhat harsh during this season. This he does through motifs such as the twigs on the floor which relate to the tree outside in the distance. Is this a metaphor for life passing and the prospect of death? It is quite possible. One thing is certain, the Younger insists on the comfort this community enjoys, albeit spartan but sufficient. With the abundance of food, winter won’t be a problem: dried herrings, grain, stew, and poultry. The neat clothes and the variety of furniture further confirm the affluence and well-being of the household.

The perfect technical skill, the supple and lively lines, and the sparkling colours of this painting are true to Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s style. Note the careful execution of the faces, despite their stylised features: small round faces highlighted with touches of white to suggest the roundness and affability of the characters. The varied poses add dynamic to the group arranged in a descending diagonal in our direction. The painter excels in the precise rendering of the richly coloured fabrics, brought to life with numerous folds. The brightness of the vermillion, blue and white against the various shades of ochre, bring life and spontaneity to this picturesque and captivating scene, in which animals and humans live peacefully side by side. This painting is marvellous evidence of the artist’s inventive spirit and meticulousness, and of a skilful chronicler of Flemish peasant life.

Besides the state of conservation of Peasants warming themselves beside the hearth, the presence of the maker’s mark on the oak panel is a highly important element. The symbol of the clover leaf is associated with Michiel Claessens, active in Antwerp between 1590 and 1637.

The study of this work’s underlying drawing reveals profound similarities with that of The wedding dance in the open air, attributed to Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Moreover, it bears the same maker’s mark. This painting was part of Baron Evence Coppée’s remarkable collection of Flemish art, auctioned in London in July 2014. The Younger also employed the theme of a group gathering around a fire in Figures warming themselves at the entrance to a cave (signed, 29 x 37 cm, private collection, Brussels). Finally, we can also compare our painted panel to The visit to the farm , which shows a peasant community receiving the visit of a patrician couple in a farmhouse. The large pot simmering over the fire is a recurring motif, just like the everyday objects, rush chairs and small children.

Four versions of Peasants warming themselves beside the hearth are listed by Georges Marlier in his abovementioned book: the one at the Francke Gallery in Leipzig in 1930 (32 x 46 cm), the one at the A. Lemke Gallery in Hanover in 1939 (22 x 33 cm), the one at the P. Boer Gallery in Amsterdam in 1934 (25 x 36 cm, monogrammed PB) and the one in the P.J.G. van Heek collection at the Rijksmuseum Twenthe in Enschede since 1938 (25 x 36 cm, monogrammed PB). Two other versions were sold by Christie’s in New York in 1980 and 1983. A final one, attributed to a follower of Pieter Balten, with a somewhat poorer quality drawing, was put up for auction at Sotheby’s in 2010. While the high number of copies confirms the popularity of the iconographic formula developed by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, the finesse of the pictorial execution as well as our painting’s state of conservation, make it the work of reference.

Provenance :
De Jonckheere Gallery, Paris;
Private collection.