de jonckheere old masters

Pieter Brueghel the Younger

The Payment of the Tithe or the Village Lawyer

Panel: 58,7 x 82,5 cm
Signed and dated at lower left P.BREVGHEL - 1618


A satirical subject, The Payment of the Tithe (also called The Peasants' Lawyer, The Village Lawyer, The Tax Collector, The Lawyer of Dubious Cases or The Notary's Office) was a popular theme in the seventeenth century, perhaps even the most popular composition produced by Pieter Brueghel the Younger. In a disorderly room, piles of papers and mailbags are heaped on the floor. Three groups of figures occupy the scene. At the entrance of the room, a man steps hesitantly through the door, while another placidly waits his turn, with his hat and papers in his hand. Not far from them, a clerk in the office is busy taking notes. In the centre, another group of characters is made up of four bearded men and a woman rummaging in her basket. The men are clearly hesitant, looking towards a figure seated behind a desk in disarray, who wears a doctoral cap. His small pointed beard hides his prominent chin, perhaps a nod to the Habsburg jaw. In his right hand, he holds slip of paper and in his left, a sheaf. This figure is quite plainly the title character, the village lawyer. Behind him hangs a calendar with the following inscription: "ALMANACH DE GRACE […] DE DIEU […] ". Together with two other figures, he forms the third group in the composition: at his side, a clerk stares blankly into the room and a shabbily dressed character looks at the calendar.

As its title suggests, the theme of this work was long associated with the payment of taxes. However, upon closer study of the caricatured faces, as well as the main character, one concludes that it is a satirical vision of the lawyer's profession. Moreover, in sources such as inventories of collections of paintings in seventeenth-century Antwerp, this painting is mentioned under the title of "magistrate". The people waiting in the office have therefore come to pay the magistrate in kind, with eggs and bunches of grapes. Finally, to further support this hypothesis, tracts have been found using this painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger in order to spread pamphlets against corruption. These were engraved by Paulus Fürst, a bookseller and art dealer in Nuremberg in the early seventeenth century.

Unlike The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow, The Census at Bethlehem and Winter Landscape with Bird Trap, the topic addressed here by Pieter Brueghel the Younger is not a version of a work by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. As such, The Payment of the Tithe illustrates the unique personality of Pieter Brueghel the Younger. The source of numerous differences of opinion between art historians, this composition remains shrouded in mystery. However, given the number of versions made of it, there can be no question of the great popularity of this theme. Because of the use of the French language in the text on the calendar, Jacqueline Folie suggests that the prototype for the painting may have been of French origin. Klaus Ertz also suspects the existence of a prototype, now lost, painted by Nicolas Baullery (1560-1630). Meanwhile, this accomplished and well preserved version can be connected with the one presented at the Castle Museum in Norwich, of matching dimensions and pictorial characteristics.

Provenance :
Private collection, Europe.

Littérature :
K. Ertz, Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere, Lingen, 1988/2000, Vol.I, p. 487-500;
P. Marlier, Pierre Brueghel le Jeune, Brussels, 1969, p.435-440;
Exhib. cat. "L’entreprise Brueghel" Maastricht, Bonnefanten Museum, and Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, 2002, p. 173-185.