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Jan Brueghel The Elder - Fish market on a the waterfront of a town

Jan Brueghel The Elder

Fish market on a the waterfront of a town

Oil on copper: 6.9(h) x 10.7(w) in / 17.5(h) x 27.3(w) cm
Signed and dated lower left: BREVGHEL. 1605

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1568 - Antwerp - 1625

Ref: CA 155


Fish market on the waterfront of a town


Signed and dated lower left: BREVGHEL. 1605

Oil on copper: 6 7/8 x 10 ¾ in / 17.5 x 27.3 cm

Frame size: 11 5/8 x 15 ½ in / 29.5 x 39.4 cm

In a black polished Dutch seventeenth century style frame





Private collection, Switzerland;

by family descent for several generations


Dr Klaus Ertz has confirmed that this is an autograph work by Jan Brueghel the Elder


Jan Brueghel the Elder was a pioneer in the development of landscape painting in the early years of the seventeenth century. Instead of the godlike gaze of the panoramic ‘world landscape’ favoured by his father Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569) and artists such as Joachim Patinir (1483-1524), Jan lowered the viewpoint and engaged more realistically with the participants in his scenes. He also dispensed with sixteenth century landscape painters’ division of the paintings into three tones: brown for the foreground, green for the middle ground and blue in the distance. Space flows seamlessly in this Fish market scene. The eye is led around the composition by emphasis of light and shadow. The brilliant clothing of the townsfolk in the left foreground is thrown into relief by the shadowed area behind them. The horizon line is emphasized by the radiance of light on the river, cast by a hazy sun. The moored boats throw dark repoussoirs of masts and sails which make the water beyond seem all the brighter, giving added depth to the composition. Jan’s miniaturist technique, with its attention to ripples on the water and the softly-shifting clouds traversed by birds, creates a convincing world in which we can almost smell the breeze from the river and hear the murmur of the townsfolk.


In the first years of seventeenth century Jan began to combine genre scenes teeming with figures – the sort of crowds masterfully orchestrated in his father’s The Sermon of Saint John the Baptist, 1566 (Szépmüvészeti Museum, Budapest) – with broad riverscapes. These give both a close and far focus, a balance between the human world and the awesomely fluid world of nature. Jan earlier explored the Fish market theme in the Large fish market with a self-portrait, signed and dated 1603, in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich[1], which retains more of the ‘world landscape’ high viewpoint. In the present painting we are much closer to the lively figures haggling on the river bank and the exquisitely painted still life of glistening, newly-landed fish. Brueghel draws us into the human drama: the cautious housewife and the eager fish seller; the two well-dressed men appraising the catch. Beyond this scene stretches a market, a myriad of tiny figures evoking the spirit of a great trading port.


Brueghel returned from Italy and settled in Antwerp in 1596. By 1605, when this painting was made, he was well established as an artist in the city, buying a handsome house, ‘De Meerminne’ (the Mermaid), on the Lange Nieuwerstraat in 1604. The scene of the Fish market, while being a product of the artist’s imagination, has echoes of Antwerp’s architecture and topography. The city was the mercantile powerhouse of the Habsburg southern Netherlands. The broad river Scheldt flows through its centre, making it then, as now, an important port. The tower that dominates the left-hand side of this painting is a reminder of Antwerp’s many fortifications, necessary to protect a crucial economic and strategic asset. The tall houses, with their stepped gables, reflect the wealth of Antwerp’s merchants, many of them clients for Brueghel’s works. The church spires symbolize its place at the heart of the Counter-Reformation, the spiritual and aesthetic renewal of Catholicism to counter the Protestant threat. Jan lived in a golden, if troubled, age in which mercantile wealth and Church patronage provided much work for the southern Netherlands’ finest artists: new altarpieces from his friend Peter Paul Rubens, scenes from Classical literature from Hendrick van Balen (c.1575-1632), with both of whom he collaborated and travelled. With paintings such as Fish market on the waterfront of a town, Jan held up a mirror to the society of his day, but transformed it in the most intriguing and delectable way.


Brueghel explored the theme of the fish market by a river in other paintings made around this time. Closest in composition to the present work is the oil on copper Fish market on the waterfront of a town in the Staatliche Museum, Schwerin[2], which is neither signed nor dated, suggesting that the Richard Green painting is the prime version.






1568 - Antwerp - 1625


Jan Brueghel the Elder was one of the most important Flemish artists of the 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 (1612-13; 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 Netherlands. Around 1613 Brueghel travelled to the northern Netherlands on official business with his friends and collaborators Rubens and Hendrick 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 the Younger 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] Inv. No.1889. Oil on panel: 23 x 36 in / 58.5 x 91.5 cm. Klaus Ertz and Christa Nitze-Ertz, Jan Brueghel der Ältere (1568-1625): Kritischer Katalog der Gemälde, Lingen 2008, vol. I, pp.100-103, no.15, illus. in colour and with colour detail.

[2] Circa 1605, 7 x 10 ¾ in / 17.6 x 27.5 cm, inv. no.G2343. Klaus Ertz and Christa Nitze-Ertz, op. cit., vol. I, pp.278-9, no.127, illus. in colour.

Other Works By
Jan Brueghel The Elder:

Jan Brueghel The Elder - Orpheus playing to Pluto and Proserpine Jan Brueghel The Elder - A village street with travellers