Pieter Brueghel the Younger was an outstandingly successful painter in his own time, and his works remain extremely sought-after today. His career and enduring reputation was based on the production of paintings, like this one, that are based on compositions by his father, Pieter Bruegel the Elder.1
This picture, which is in remarkably good original condition, is the best of the versions by Pieter Brueghel the Younger of a composition devised by his father. There has been much debate as to which is the original painting by Bruegel the Elder but conservation work done on the one in the Royal collection at Hampton Court and recent scholarship has lead to the general conclusion that this is the original composition, a conclusion supported by its illustrious provenance beginning with the collection of Rudolph II in Prague and entering the collection of Charles II of England after it was bought at Breda in 1660.2 The other paintings which have at one time been suggested as Pieter Bruegel the Elder's original are now all accepted as works by Brueghel the Younger.3
The number and quality of the versions by Brueghel the Younger suggest he knew his father's original well. Bruegel the Elder died in 1569 when his son would have been a young child and as there is no evidence to suggest that even if he had a workshop that it functioned after his death, thus there cannot have been continuity of production between father and son. Brueghel the Younger must either have initially been working from the original, or, as Lorne Campbell has tentatively suggested, perhaps using some form of cartoon to transfer the design.4 Given the approximately thirty years that elapsed between the Elder Bruegel's death and the start of his son's production, this is fairly unlikely, but tracing is almost certainly the means by which compositions were transferred within Pieter Brueghel the Younger's workshop, as under-drawings and the use of standard sized panels indicates.5
The likelihood is therefore that Bruegel the Elder's original was still in the Netherlands in the 1590s when his son started to produce versions, meaning that it must have been sent to Prague around the turn of the century, where it was on display in the castle by 1604, when seen by Van Mander. It was at this time that a tidal flow of paintings and works of art as well as artists flowed from Flanders to the Imperial Court at Prague.
Ertz lists eleven autograph versions by Brueghel the Younger including the present picture. If the date on the Lons-Le-Saunier of 1593 is original, it would be the earliest version by far, and possibly Pieter Brueghel the Younger's earliest dated work. The present picture probably dates from the first decade of the 17th Century, and of the known versions by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, it may well be the most faithful to the Elder's original. This may be seen in the distinctive brushwork in the sky which is far closer to its handling in Pieter Bruegel the Elder's picture, and in the virtuoso handling of the rendered surfaces of the gabled houses.
Recent dendrochronological tests carried out on the panel by Ian Tyers also substantiates a dating of this work to the first decade of the 17th century (and in all probability to circa 1605-10). All five planks which comprise the panel are likely to have come from the same Baltic Oak tree, and the latest ring is from 1590. Assuming between 8 and 16 years of sapwood growth, a likely felling date was between 1598 and 1606. A copy of Dr Tyers' report is available upon request.
As the original composition was painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder it is within the context of his lifetime that the style and iconography of these paintings can be best understood. By choosing to set the narrative of the massacre in mid winter Brueghel was conforming with the church's calendar which commemorated this event on the 28th December. There was an added stylistic benefit to setting this scene in a snowy Netherlandish landscape enabling Brueghel to paint the blood of the babies dashed red across the snow strewn with the footprints of the soldiers and fleeing villagers. Campbell has argued that Bruegel would not have been able to paint this frozen scene with such realism and competence had he not recently experienced the harsh winter of 1554-5 when the icebergs of the North Sea entered Delfshaven harbour near Rotterdam.6 It was however Bruegel's decision to depict this scene of horror in a Netherlandish village setting that gave these paintings such a powerful impact. Whilst the subject of this painting, the Massacre of the Innocents, is taken directly from Matthew II:6 the village bloodshed depicted here was an all too present reality in the Spanish Netherlands in the late 1560s. In 1567 Phillip II of Spain appointed the Duke of Alba Governor General of the Netherlands and sent him with an army of 12,000 men to deal with the heretical protestant movements. His arrival led to such violent suppression that his rule became known as the "Reign of Blood" and contemporary Dutch accounts speak of over 18,000 people killed.7 It has been argued that the mounted figure, surrounded by the troop of lance carrying soldiers and clothed all in black and with a long grey beard and moustache was intended by Bruegel to be a portrait of the Duke, who was also known as the Black Duke because of his penchant for black clothes.8 The facial similarities between this black figure and the Duke are not explicit in the Hampton Court original (although this could be a result of the later seventeenth century alterations discussed below) and become much more pronounced in the versions by Brueghel the Younger such as the present painting. Alba's predecessor in the Netherlands, Margaret of Parma, had ruled more gently and there was much discontent at her removal, the contrast between the Austrian and Spanish Hapsburg regime is perhaps referred to here in the unarmed mounted courtier, with a double headed Hapsburg eagle on his tunic, centre right, who is surrounded by a hoard of pleading parents but shrugs his shoulders as if to say he can do nothing.9 Further political comment can be read in the arms of the King of Jerusalem flown above the troop of soldiers. This is the banner that Herod would have adopted but it was also a title held during this period by Phillip II. When Pieter Brueghel painted the present picture early in the 17th Century, the memories of Alba's Reign of Blood were still vivid in Flanders, and were constantly being revived by quotidian acts of cruelty by successive Spanish ruling regimes. The course of the 100 Year War still had four more decades to run, and religious strife persisted to the extent that it was in the early years of the 17th Century rather than earlier that the great exodus of artists took place from Antwerp and other Flemish cities, to the relative safety and prosperity of the Dutch cities of the Seven Provinces to the north.
The impact of this composition both in terms of the horror of the narrative and the veiled political comments was and remains very powerful. When the original by Bruegel the Elder was seen in Prague Castle in 1604 it still depicted the Massacre but by the time of the inventory of 1621 the babies had been painted out and replaced with poultry and other foodstuff and this once horrendous scene now depicted a village plundering, "Eine Dorfblinderung vom alten Prague".10 Due to early alterations made in Prague it is only through the versions done by Brueghel the Younger that the original state of the Hampton Court picture is known. The popularity of this composition and the intensity of its intended religious and political dimensions is attested by the number of versions painted by his son in the 1590s and first decades of the next century.
The contrast between the pure whiteness of the snow and the horrors of the subject depicted intensifies the drama. The outlines throughout, and especially those that divide the rooves and the trees from the cold blue sky are startlingly crisp, and heighten the sense of cold. The exaggerated caricatural figures by contrast elaborate the human drama, and the realistic handling of materials intensifies the sense of the reality of the event.
Note on the provenance
Émile Grisar was in business by 1914 as a paintings dealer at Longue rue de l'Hopital 11, Antwerp. He was a prisoner-of-war in the First World War and was given a medal by the British government.
No consignor is given in the 1948 Brussels sale catalogue, but the preceding lot, an Allegory of Abundance by Jan Brueghel the Younger, was also formerly in the Émile Grisar collection (the sale order was alphabetical, by artist). Perhaps it was sold by Emsens, Grimbergen; although Ertz lists his ownership as after the 1973 Sotheby's sale, it seems likely that it was earlier.
1. It is usually assumed that Pieter Bruegel the Elder omitted the "h" from his name to Latinize it when he went to Italy. Our spelling of his name follows his signature. His son Pieter changed the spelling of his surname in his signature from Brueghel to Breughel in circa 1626, but his brother and nephew Jan Brueghel the Elder and Younger seem to have retained the earlier form.
2. L. Campbell, The Early Netherlandish Paintings in the Collection of her Majesty the Queen, Cambridge 1985, pp. 13-19, no. 9, reproduced.
3. These are: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; formerly in the collection of Baron Descamps, sold in these Rooms 7 December 2005, lot 23, signed lower right: P.BRVEGEL; in the Musée des Beaux Arts, Lons-Le-Saunier signed: BRVEGHEL 1593; in the Romanian National Museum of Art, Bucharest signed P.BRVEGHEL and the painting in Musée Royaux des Beaux Arts, Brussels, signed: P.BRVEGHEL 160(4?); see G. Marlier, Pierre Brueghel le Jeune, Brussels 1969, pp. 67-75; K. Ertz, Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere, Lingen 1988/2000, vol. I, pp. 321-353.
4. See Campbell, ibid.
5. For a full discussion of this, see P. van den Brink (ed.), Brueghel Enterprises, exhibition catalogue, Maastricht-Brussels 2001. Pieter Brueghel's brother Jan Brueghel the Elder seems also to have adopted the same practice in a few of his large-scale replicas of his father's work.
6. Campbell, ibid., p. 19.
7. J. Israel, The Dutch Republic: its Rise, Greatness, and Fall 1477-1806, Oxford 1995, pp. 159-160.
8. S. Ferber, 'Pieter Brueghel and the Duke of Alba', in Renaissance News, vol. XIX, 1966, no. 3, pp. 213. pp. 205-219.
9. Ferber, Ibid., p. 214.
10. Campbell, op. cit., p. 17.
Oil on oak panel
Antwerp, Antwerpse Propagandaweken. Tentoonstelling van Kunstwerken uit Antwerpsche Verzamelingen, 20 April - 19 May 1935, no. 21, lent by E. Grisar.
122 by 170 cm.; 48 by 67 in.
Possibly G. Glück, Breugels Gemälde, Vienna 1932 (4th ed., 1937), p. 56, under no. 26 (according to Ertz);
G. Marlier, Pierre Brueghel le Jeune, Brussels 1969, p. 73, no. 3;
Advertisement in The Burlington Magazine, vol. 115, no. 840, March 1973, pp. xli, lxix;
L. Campbell, The Early Flemish Pictures in the Collection of her Majesty the Queen, London 1985, p. 16, no. 5;
K. Ertz, Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere, vol. I, Lingen 1988/2000, pp. 350-51, cat. no. E290.
Émile Grisar, Antwerp, by 1935;
Anonymous sale, Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, 11 October 1948, lot 39, for 550,000 Belgian Francs;
Anonymous sale ('The Property of a Gentleman'), London, Sotheby's, 21 March 1973, lot 82, for £90,000 to "Paul";
Possibly Emsens Collection, Grimbergen, and bought back by Mme Emsens in his sale (according to Ertz);
Anonymous sale, Amsterdam, Sotheby's Mak van Waay, 15 November 1976, lot 13, withdrawn (included in the catalogue but not consigned);
Sold to the present owner in or shortly after 1976.