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Pieter Brueghel the Younger

Winter landscape with skaters

Panel: 40 x 57 cm
Signed lower right: P · BREVGHEL·

introduction

An original work by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, this delightful painting belongs to the series of the Four Seasons. This theme, which was very popular at the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century, was painted several times by Pieter the Younger and Abel Grimmer. Their common model was a series of four engravings published by Hieronymus Cock in 1570, which were in turn based on two drawings by Pieter Brueghel the Elder: Spring (1565, Albertina, Vienna) and Summer (1568, Kunsthalle, Hamburg), and two drawings by Hans Bol: Autumn and Winter. In his catalogue, Marlier assumes that Cock had originally commissioned this series from Pieter Brueghel the Elder and that the latter hadn't been able to deliver the last two drawings before his death, which explains the urgent commission placed with Hans Bol in order to finish the series and publish it in 1570.

These engravings therefore provided Pieter Brueghel the Younger with the material for several of his finest paintings. Abel Grimmer also drew inspiration from them (1607, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp). But there is a clear distinction between the two artists and their respective versions, dispelling any confusion. While we are familiar with a number of complete series of Grimmer’s work, it would appear that those of Brueghel were broken up early on. Perhaps Grimmer was accustomed to not separating this type of series, while Brueghel undoubtedly agreed to supply a single season upon the client’s request. In his catalogue raisonné, Dr. Klaus Ertz lists the ten different-sized versions of this painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger.

The panel is composed of two main planes. The first one shows us the peasants getting ready to go out on the ice. As in the engraving, the artist places the group on an elevated part of the road, like actors on a stage. This process allows him to emphasise the figures’ attitudes and movements.

The painting features two diagonals formed by the riverbed; the eye is naturally drawn to the composition’s background, towards the second plane where scattered groups are skating. Contrary to Grimmer, Pieter the Younger diverges from the scene imagined by Bol. A dwelling replaces the small artificial island to the right of the castle where a spindly solitary tree was growing. He has also removed the men who were working the land on the left; this part of the painting remains empty and is covered in snow. He therefore breaks with the pictorial tradition particular to the 15th and 16th centuries: that of the books of hours such as the Très riches heures du Duc de Berry, or Calendrier de Pietro de Crescenzi where work on the land was associated with the seasons.

On the other hand, he has added several small skaters in front of the castle and, depending on the versions, we can see quite a number of variants in the characters’ attitudes. The painter provides us with an image of his fellow citizens’ customs.

Through the contrast between the brightly-coloured clothes and the light landscape dominated by blue-greens and steely greys, conveying the rigours of winter, Pieter Brueghel shows his great mastery of colour and a rigorous sense of observation of reality. He even goes as far as to put footprints in the snow. If we look closely at the colours of the clothes in Brueghel’s works (L'hiver, Collection J. Grazia) and Grimmer’s, they are very different. This proves that they were indeed the fruit of each artist's imagination and that their only source of inspiration was the black and white engraving.

Although other works by Brueghel are structured in the same way (Kermis with village dance), the master broke with the composite landscapes of his predecessors. A good example is his series Winter landscape with bird trap, where he adopts a relatively high viewpoint thus bringing a completely new emphasis to landscape painting.

Through its size, balance and composition, the varied and strong range of colours, and the delicate execution, this painting bears witness to a stylistic identity specific to Pieter Brueghel.

Provenance :
With Galerie van Diemen, Berlin;
Jacob Hartog, The Hague;
His forced sale to Hitler for the Linz Museum, 18 August 1942, for 5,000 Dutch florins;
Restituted to the Dutch Government, 29 April 1946;
Returned to Jacob Hartog, New York, in 1946;
Thence by family descent until sold New York, Sotheby's, 25 January 2007, lot 20, for $2,900,000;
With Richard Green, London;
Private collection.

Littérature :
B. Schwarz, Hitler's Museum. Die Fotoalben Gemäldegalerie Linz, Vienna 2004, no. XXI/41, p. 144, reproduced p. 351.