This hitherto unrecorded picture, painted on a single plank of wood and preserved in excellent condition, has been in the same family collection for sixty years. It is one of only eight or nine authentic versions of the same composition known by Pieter Brueghel the Younger.1 All of these are on panels of similar dimensions, and as with other paintings by Brueghel known in multiple versions, it is probable that the design was transferred using tracing. This view is lent support by the characteristic underdrawing revealed in a scan using infra-red reflectography (see fig. 1).2 Of the other versions listed by Klaus Ertz, who seems to have been unaware of the present work, only three (or possibly four) have original signatures, and only one work is recorded as dated, to 1626.3
A clue to a likely dating is given by a tree-ring analysis of the panel conducted by the dendrochronologist Ian Tyers.4 The single plank panel was cut from an oak growing in Western Europe, probably Flanders (rather than Baltic oak) which was still growing in 1574, the date of the last heartwood ring, and probably felled no earlier than 1582. This is a lot earlier than the earliest likely date for the painting, but it assumes minimum sapwood growth, and a likely felling date would be somewhat later. Of greater significance is that this panel was sawn from the same tree as two other single-plank panels that Brueghel used as the supports for two other paintings, both versions of the composition known variously as The Village Lawyer, The Payment of Tithes, or Rent Day. One of these, in Norwich, Castle Museum, is signed and dated 1618, and the other, in Bruges, Groeningemuseum, is signed and dated 1620.5 Since large single plank panels such as these were expensive, and would not have sat around unused for long, a dating of the present picture to within, or very close to, this span of dates is highly likely: thus between 1617 and 1621.
This composition appears to be of Pieter Brueghel the Younger's own devising, and is not based on any known design of his father's. Georges Marlier, the doyen of Pieter Brueghel studies, describes it as "dans lequel la personnalité de Pierre [Brueghel] le Jeune s'exprime le plus clairement".6 Marlier, who was aware of only six versions, dated them circa 1620-25.
Baron Laurent Meeus (1872-1950) was a Belgian industrialist, and was one of the founders of the petrochemical concern Petrofina SA in the 1920s. In his heyday he was a very active collector of Old Master Paintings, and was a great bibliophile who assembled an outstanding library. He became President of the Friends of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, the main organisation of the museum in financing the acquisition of works of art. He had intended to donate his Old Master collection to the Museum, but because of the opprobrium that the economic collaboration of Petrofina in wartime with the Axis powers (particularly in the Romanian oilfields) brought him after the war, this never came about.
We are grateful to Jacques Lust, Expert in Restitution matters, Belgian Federal Science Policy, for his help in researching the provenance of this lot.
1. Two versions may be one and the same picture.
2. For a discussion of the use of tracings by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, and copious comparable IRR scans illustrating underdrawing, see P. van den Brink (ed.), Brueghel Enterprises, exhibition catalogue, Maastricht 2001.
3. See K. Ertz, Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere (1564-1637/38). Die Gemälde. Mit kritischem Oeuvrekatalog, Lingen 2000, vol. 2, pp. 905-7, nos. E 1226-E 1231a, most reproduced. The dated picture is no. E 1226.
4. Dendrochronological Consultancy Report 346, May 2010. A copy of this may be inspected upon request, and will be supplied to the buyer.
5. Norwich, Castle Museum, inv. NWHCM: 1975.272: F; Bruges, Stedelijke Musea, Groeningemuseum, Inv. O.16061; see Ertz, under literature, 2000, vol. 1, p. 503, no. E498 (Norwich), p. 504, no. E 504 (Bruges); see also Van den Brink (ed.), 2001, no. 43 (Norwich) & no. 38 (Bruges), both reproduced in colour. The reverse of the Bruges panel also bears the brand of the Antwerp panel-makers' Guild, while the reverse of the Norwich picture has been shaved and cradled.
6. G. Marlier, Pierre Brueghel le Jeune, Brussels 1969, p. 401.
Oil on single plank oak panel, the reverse marked with the brand of the Antwerp panel-makers' Guild
52.7 by 85.1 cm.; 20 3/4 by 33 1/2 in.
Laurent Meeus (1872-1950), Brussels;
From whose widow acquired in 1950 by a private collector;
From whom inherited by the father of the present owner.