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Jan Brueghel the Younger

River landscape with a view of Antwerp

Panel: 20 x 29 cm

introduction

This magnificently constructed river landscape offers us resounding proof that Jan Brueghel the Younger well and truly belongs to this great line of descendants.

A highly delicate, well-balanced painting, benefiting from colours of a rare freshness, it is based on a relatively simple composition allowing the artist to brilliantly develop his taste for harmony. Inspired by a subject often painted by Jan Brueghel the Elder, the theme of the river landscape is taken up again here with great talent, finesse and meticulousness.

An open window on the 17th century, the panel comes to life before our eyes and carries us to the heart of the port of the biggest city in northern Europe: Antwerp. In an atmosphere of subtle nuances, Jan Brueghel the Younger presents us with a composition of a group where each motif is studied and well-thought-out. The painting is made up of a multitude of small poetic scenes with a view over the 'vrijthof', a large square in Antwerp. The juxtaposed harmonious scenes, each with their own rhythm, lead our gaze from the foreground to the middle distance. We thus pause to look at the two fishermen who are waiting for their companions to take the fish out of the boats so they can help them unload their catch on the ground. We can also see a nonchalant group of men inspecting the fish while the servants and other ordinary women stuff their purchases into big baskets. A more distinguished couple of rich Flemings, dressed in black, cautiously inspect a barrel filled with victuals. Further away, the market composed of numerous stands, carts, stallholders and tradesmen stretches along the quayside up to the gates of the town.

The different scenes composing the painting are linked to each other by a pleasantly snaking river that slowly leads the viewer's gaze towards the dazzling reflection of the sun on the calm waters of the port. The dark confusion of small boats and ships is cleverly linked to the left part of the shore, thus contributing to the co-ordination of the entire painting. The architectural rhythm of this landscape has a perfect clarity. The boats' masts match the towers of the port town, while the warm red of the bricks and tiles finds its counterpart in the bluish mass of the water and air. Benefiting from all the delicacy of the palette of this great colourist, the painting is illuminated with harmoniously contrasting colours where an infinite range of grey clearly dominates, mixed magnificently with hues of red, blue, brown and green. Completing this vaporous atmosphere, the lively colours of the scarlet smocks, bright blue skirts and saffron yellow shirts energise the rhythm of the whole, just like a musical counterpoint.

Through this River landscape with a view of Antwerp, whose workmanship can be compared to the finesse of a copper, Jan Brueghel the Younger proves he is worthy of his ancestors and deserving of his place in the genealogy of these painters who fathered Flemish art.

The composition is an exact copy of the painting of a Fish market in front of a town by Jan Brueghel the Elder, currently kept at the Staatliches Museum in Schwerin. The date of the painting is unknown but according to G. Seeling, it was painted circa 1610. K. Ertz believes it to be earlier and compares it with another river landscape by Jan Brueghel the Elder, kept in Munich. The latter was painted in 1605, at a time when Antwerp was affected by one of the most dramatic moments in its history.

After a flourishing period that placed the city among the wealthiest and most populated centres in Europe, Antwerp found itself in a state crisis in the second half of the 16th century, following various events that upset the established order. The city was transformed into an arena of political and religious conflict, pitting the Protestant north against the Catholic south. The ban on access to the Scheldt by the United Provinces considerably reduced trade in Antwerp and significantly impacted the city's economy and development. It was only in 1609, i.e. when the Twelve Years' Truce was signed, that the city enjoyed an upturn.

It was probably this moment of new hope that Jan Brueghel the Elder wanted to portray in the painting in Schwerin. The scene, painted in relatively sober tones, is illuminated by a ray of light that separates the large clouds, perhaps reflecting this promise of new prosperity.

Jan Brueghel the Younger copies the subject but interprets it in far more luminous tones. In the background, the viewer can catch a glimpse of some of Antwerp's most emblematic buildings such as the Viscoopers Tower, part of the Vleeshuis, as well as the Cathedral of Our Lady's bell tower. The same buildings are often portrayed by other artists of the time, as shown in an engraving of 1610 by Johannes Baptista Vrints.

Provenance :
Heim Gayrac gallery;
Private collection, Italy.