Jan Brueghel the Elder was one of the most prominent painters working in Antwerp during the early 17th century. Born into a distinguished dynasty of painters, he specialised in producing immaculately detailed landscapes and still lifes. His brother, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, followed the tradition of their father Pieter the Elder and also painted a number of important landscapes, such as the iconic The Bird Trap.
This painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder is one of the finest examples of the master’s work in private hands. The detailed composition and refined technique demonstrate the painter’s skill in rendering intricate works, which earned him the nickname Fluweleen Brueghel (Velvet Brueghel) amongst his contemporaries.
Dated to 1616, Figures dancing on the bank of a river... was created during Brueghel’s time as court painter to the governors of the Southern Netherlands, the Archduke Albert and his wife Isabella. This was a time of political stability, with a truce established between the Protestant provinces in northern Holland and the Catholic, Spanish-controlled territories in the south where Brueghel lived.
This river landscape, which shows figures dancing, conversing and going about their daily business, is a charming evocation of country life. However, as is typical with many paintings produced in the Netherlands during the 17th century, it included a variety of subtler ideas that encompass political, religious and personal beliefs. Here, we look at some of these ideas and how they illuminate one of Jan Brueghel the Elder’s most important and beautiful works.
The artist included a self-portrait with his wife and family in the lower right of the picture — Jan Breughel is the figure in black, farthest left. The figures are recognisable from a portrait painted the year before this river landscape by Brueghel’s friend and collaborator, Sir Peter Paul Rubens, which is now in the Courtauld Institute of Art. Brueghel only included three self-portraits in his landscapes, and this is the only one remaining in private hands.
Jan Brueghel the Elder’s self-portrait is the figure dressed in black on the far left
Brueghel’s clothes in the self-portrait show him not as a painter but as a wealthy gentleman. This demonstrates the increasing trend for painters to elevate their social status by depicting themselves as intellectual, thinking figures, rather than simply craftsmen.
Brueghel’s attention to detail — the rendering of plants, trees and even blades of grass in this composition — reflects how the Counter-Reformation in the Spanish Catholic Netherlands coloured the artist’s worldview. Believing that the natural world was a reflection of God, his scientifically intricate depiction of nature was a step closer to knowing ‘Him’ in appreciating all of the elements of Creation.
Brueghel’s attention to detail extended to the painting of individual blades of grass
The minute brushwork of the painting would have been greatly appreciated by contemporary collectors. Small cabinet pictures such as this were intended for intimate study by discerning viewers familiar with their symbolism, and would have hung among collections of artefacts and naturalia, alongside other paintings, scientific instruments, ornate objects and classical antiques.
The prominent money pouch worn by the dancing woman is eyed greedily by two figures dancing by her. The suggestion that her abandon has led her to neglect her possessions evokes the old proverb ‘a fool and his money are soon parted’. As excessive drunkenness and lasciviousness were condemned by the Church, Brueghel’s use of the dancing figures here can likewise be read as a warning against excess.
Buyers gather around a seller of fish, while careless dancers cavort in the background
The foreground of the painting shows a fisherman wearing a blue hat presenting his catch to a group of customers. Fishermen were popularly linked with the Apostles and the famous words of Christ, recorded in the Gospel of Saint Matthew (4:19), that they should be ‘fishers of men’ gathering people to the Church.
Details such as the dead fish lying on the grass juxtaposed with the live fish in the water symbolise the fragility of existence, and thus remind the viewer of the importance of leading a moral life.
The pleas of the beggar holding out his cap to the horsemen in the middle of the composition appear to have fallen on deaf ears among the gathered crowd, suggesting that they have turned their backs on their Christian duty. Giving alms was important for Christians as one of the seven works of mercy encouraged by the church.
No one appears to be paying heed to the beggar holding out his cap
The winding road leading to the church was a common compositional device in Brueghel’s work, and could perhaps also be interpreted as a metaphor for the ‘journey of life’, and the path along which we must all travel.
The church at the end of the road
Brueghel painted a number of river landscapes, all of which are usually populated by villagers calmly going about their daily business. This type of paintings was evidently popular among patrons, but perhaps also conveyed a political message. With the Twelve Years’ Truce of 1606, lands were reclaimed in the Southern Netherlands that had previously been abandoned. As a result, agriculture and the rural economy again began to flourish. Brueghel’s scenes of bucolic harmony perhaps served to reassure patrons of the stability of the population in the Southern Netherlands.