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Jan Brueghel The Elder - A village street with travellers

Jan Brueghel The Elder

A village street with travellers

Oil on copper: 6.3(h) x 7.9(w) in / 15.9(h) x 20(w) cm
Signed and dated lower right: BRVEGHEL 1614

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1568 - Antwerp - 1625

Ref: BY 143


A village street with travellers


Signed and dated lower right: BRVEGHEL 1614

Oil on copper:  6 ¼ x 7 7/8 in / 15.9 x 20 cm

Frame size: 10 ¾ x 12 ¼ in / 27.3 x 31.1 cm

In a black polished Dutch seventeenth century style frame





Private collection, France;

by inheritance in the 1980s to a private collection, Lyon



Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Pieter Breughel le Jeune-Jan Brueghel l’Ancien: Une Famille de Peintres Flamandes vers 1600, 1998, pp.174-6, no.53, illus. in colour

Cremona, Museo Civico Ala Ponzone, Pieter Breughel il Giovane-Jan Brueghel il Vecchio: Tradizione e Progresso: Una Famiglia di Pittori Fiamminghi tra Cinque e Seicento, 1998, no.48, illus. 



Klaus Ertz and Christa Nitze-Ertz, Jan Brueghel der Ältere (1568-1625) Kritischer Katalog der Gemälde, vol. I, Lingen 2008, pp.364-6, no.178, illus. in colour



Scenes of village life were popular in Flemish painting, with their origin in medieval manuscript illuminations showing the labours of the agricultural year. The motif was brilliantly explored by Pieter Bruegel the Elder as a canvas on which to comment on the comedy and tragedy of human existence. It was taken up by both his sons. Pieter Brueghel the Younger adapted many of his father’s compositions in exuberant celebrations of the Flemish peasantry, while Jan produced paintings of poetic originality, steeped in atmosphere and a love of nature.


This work was made in 1614, when Jan was Court painter to the Archdukes Albert and Isabella, Habsburg Regents of the Southern Netherlands. Characteristic of this phase of his career is the low viewpoint, which engages the viewer vividly with the scene and the seamless transition from foreground to background down the diagonal village street. By comparison with his earlier work, the number of figures is restricted, giving a sense of space and airiness. The delicacy of Jan’s brushwork is evident in the witty observation of the cattle, pigs and horses and the activity of the country folk. A girl drives her cows past the pond; a man hurries to bring straw to his weary horses; the woman by the inn lifts a refreshing glass of beer to a traveller on horseback. Brueghel would have witnessed many such scenes in a life filled with travel: his long journey over the Alps to Italy as a young man; a trek eastwards to Prague in 1603; in 1613 a trip to the northern Netherlands on official business, accompanied by his friends and artistic collaborators Peter Paul Rubens and Hendrik van Balen.


Brueghel imbues the scene with gentle light from a cloud-fretted sky and softens the outline of the dwellings with trees in high summer leaf, the foliage shimmering as it moves in the breeze. A particularly beautiful vignette is provided by the man watering his horses at the left of the painting, embowered in the shade of the trees. Beyond, two women and a child talk by the village church, which is haloed by the light from the sun. Jan’s painting encompasses his world: man and nature, the spiritual and the earthly in exquisite harmony.


The composition was developed from a rapid pen and ink sketch of circa 1610 in the Rijksprentenkabinet, Amsterdam[1], which includes all the major elements of the present oil on copper. Variants on the theme of travellers passing through a village from this phase of Jan’s career include the Flooded landscape, 1614, in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich[2]. 






1568 - Antwerp - 1625


Jan Brueghel the Elder was one of the most important Flemish artists of the late sixteenth and first quarter of the seventeenth century, advancing the genres of landscape and flower painting. He was born in 1568 in Brussels, the second son of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569), and trained with his grandmother, the miniature painter Mayken Verhulst Bessemers. From 1589/90-1596 he was in Italy, first in Naples and from 1592-5 in Rome, working for Cardinal Ascanio Colonna. There Jan became friends with Paul Bril (1554-1626), whose small-scale, naturalistic landscapes influenced him, and met his important, lifelong patron Federico Borromeo (1564-1631), Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, travelling to that city in 1595.


Brueghel was back in Flanders by October 1596 and set up a workshop in Antwerp. He was accepted into the Painters’ Guild of St Luke the following year and became its Dean in 1602. In 1599 he married Isabella de Jode (d.1603); their son, Jan Brueghel the Younger (1601-1678), was to be trained as a painter by his father. After the death of Isabella, Brueghel married Catharina van Marienberghe in 1605; they had eight children. Peter Paul Rubens (1570-1640) made a very fine portrait of Brueghel, his second wife and two of their children (1613-15; Courtauld Institute of Art, London), emphasizing their status and prosperity.


Jan made visits to Prague in 1603 and Nuremberg in 1606. By 1608 he was Court Painter to the Archdukes Albert and Isabella, Habsburg Regents of the Southern Netherlands. Around 1613 Brueghel travelled to the northern Netherlands on official business with his friends and collaborators Rubens and Hendrik van Balen (c.1575-1632). In 1615 the Antwerp Magistrates presented four of Jan’s paintings to Albert and Isabella. Three years later Brueghel coordinated twelve leading Antwerp painters, including Rubens, van Balen, Frans Snyders, Josse de Momper and Sebastiaen Vrancx, on an Allegory of the Five Senses project to be presented to the Archdukes. These works were destroyed by fire in 1713. Brueghel and three of his children died in an Antwerp cholera epidemic in 1625; his son Jan II returned from Italy to take over his flourishing workshop. His most important pupil was the flower painter and Jesuit priest Daniel Seghers (1590-1661).


Jan Brueghel the Elder was a prolific and highly influential artist, known in his day as ‘Velvet Brueghel’ for his delicacy of handling and ‘Paradise Brueghel’ for his many paintings on this subject. His early forest scenes were influenced by Gillis van Coninxloo III (1544-1607); he also produced Biblical paintings which adapt elements of his father’s work into his own miniaturist style. Crowded scenes of Hell were influenced by frescoes observed in Italy, for example Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling and Luca Signorelli’s work in Orvieto. Jan painted panoramic landscapes, beginning with a high, detached viewpoint but moving in the first decade of the seventeenth century towards a more naturalistic and direct engagement with nature, informed by veils of atmosphere. Also in that decade, he pioneered flower painting that was independent of any Biblical or heroic context. Jan’s flowers are superbly observed over several months and then placed together in a convincing bouquet; in one of his letters to Cardinal Borromeo, he mentions travelling specially to Brussels to draw some particularly rare floral specimens from life. Brueghel also executed many views of village life; market days, travellers on the road and festivals are presented with a refinement that would appeal to the élite for whom he painted.


The work of Jan Brueghel the Elder is represented in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; the Prado, Madrid; the Alte Pinakothek, Munich; the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan; the National Gallery, London; the Hermitage, St Petersburg and the J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.



[1] 3 ¾ x 6 in / 97 x 155 mm. De Boer Collection, inv. no.497. See Essen, Villa Hügel/Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum/Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Breughel-Brueghel, 1997-8, p.176, illus.

[2] Oil on copper: 9 ¼ x 13 in / 23.6 x 33 cm. Inv. no.1896. Ertz 2008, op. cit., vol. I, pp.328-9, no.158, illus.

Other Works By
Jan Brueghel The Elder:

Jan Brueghel The Elder - Fish market on a the waterfront of a town Jan Brueghel The Elder - Orpheus playing to Pluto and Proserpine


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