de jonckheere old masters

Pieter Brueghel the Younger

The St. Michel Inn

Panel: 50,8 x 66,7 cm
Signed P. BREVGHEL, dated 1619


This original painting by Pieter Brueghel II, of which there are eight other versions, is a very fine example of this painter’s art. And for once, he chooses a house as his focal point. Considering the size of the building, we immediately understand that it is the main subject of the painting and we could almost call it a "portrait of a house", as Klaus Ertz says. Indeed, the figures have been relegated to the middle distance and are relatively small compared with the artist’s usual scenes. The foreground is empty except for a pond with a few ducks and two trees. As well as several small groups of figures going about their business, the painter has included a number of animals that also help to animate the scene.

Two exceptional details in Brueghel's work are present in this panel: the two “paintings in the painting”, emphasised by the door frames allowing us to see inside the building. Through the front door of the inn, we are shown a room with various figures two of whom are coming in through the back door. A second opening reveals two men loading a cart in the adjoining barn. Other figures can be seen at the windows, giving the scene a sense of animation as well as an extra dimension by suggesting the space within this large building. Furthermore, the artist also draws attention to the area surrounding the house by depicting several houses on the right of the painting, lower down in the background, suggesting a village. We can also make out other constructions through the back door of the main room. This aspect reveals a new concern in Brueghel’s work regarding spatiality, hitherto unseen in his oeuvre.

The house’s pediment is covered with various painted elements in the tradition of the Lüftlmalerei usually found in the regions of Upper Bavaria and the Tyrol, not in Flanders. A certain number of heraldic shields representing Flemish towns and provinces surround the window and the door. Two scenes showing St. Michael killing the devil are placed either side of this window. Finally, the artist has created a frieze showing various travellers – on foot, on horseback, in a cart – going to the inn, symbolised by a man sitting at a table drinking wine. An inscription completes the image: Dit huys sy Godt Bequaeme / In Sinte Michiel is synen Naeme giving the place its name.
There are several versions of our painting but this one is the oldest. The versions all have their variants which mainly seem to focus on one detail, the pond. In some of the panels, including ours, the pond only reflects the trunk of the neighbouring tree while in a second series, we can see the inn’s windows, as is the case in the version in the De Boer Gallery. Moreover, in the first version, the dog situated slightly to the right of the stretch of water is lying down whereas he is always standing in the second one. This leads us to believe that there were two models in Brueghel’s studio that were copied in turn. Another notable point in our painting is that the pile of leaves on the roof are absent in the later works, while the woman crouching on the left only appeared later.

There is a subtle harmony of colours in L’Auberge St. Michel as well as a mastery of the space giving the painting a sense of airiness despite the presence of numerous details. The painting has very few straight lines and even the tree trunks are sinuous. This use of curves is particular to the artist’s late period, where he freed himself from his father’s style and moved towards more joyful and less rigid portrayals. In addition, the painter adopted the signature P. BREVGHEL as of 1616, reversing the V and the E, marking the beginning of a new era in his career. The painting is therefore characteristic of his mature output.

Provenance :
Sale, Amsterdam, Frederick Muller, 13 April 1920, no. 9;
Private collection;
Sale, Amsterdam, Frederick Muller, 5-11 May 1953, no. 164;
B. de Geus van den Heuvel Collection, Nieuwersluis, 1961;
Sale, Sotheby’s Mak van Waay, Amsterdam, 26 April 1976, no. 9;
Private collection.

Littérature :
G. Marlier, Pierre Brueghel le Jeune, Brussels, Éditions Robert Fink, 1969, pp. 411-414, fig. 258;
K. Ertz, Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere. Die Gemälde mit kritischem Œuvrekatalog, Lingen, Luca Verlag, 2000, II, pp. 832-33 + 842, E1170.

Expositions :
Arnhem, Gemeentenmuseum, Collectie B. de Geus van den Heuvel, 1960/61, no. 9;
Laren, Singer Museum, Modernen van Toen 1570-1630. Vlaamse schilderkunst en haar invloed, 1963, no. 52.