One of the most enduringly successful compositions of the Netherlandish landscape tradition, The Birdtrap remains amongst the most popular of all the works produced by the Brueghel family. Despite the numerous copies and versions made in their workshops and by painters working in their style, only two versions of the composition can be fully attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and just forty-five to his son, Pieter the Younger (see K. Ertz, op. cit., II, pp. 605-30, nos. E682 to A805a). This painting is an important addition to the latter’s oeuvre.
The original prototype for the composition appears to be the panel, signed and dated 1565, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder now in the Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts in Brussels. This work has been almost universally accepted as the prime painting, though authors like Groomann and Glück have doubted its attribution and another version dated 1564, formerly in the A. Hassid collection in London, has complicated the debate. Whatever the prototype, the composition derives ultimately from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Hunters in the Snow (fig. 1; Vienna, Kunsthistoriches Museum) in which the basic formal components are established in subtly modulated tones of white, blue, brown and black. As was the case for many of his compositions and designs, Brueghel the Younger adapted and reused various themes and subjects which had originated in his father’s workshop. In the case of The Birdtrap, it is perhaps his work, and that of his studio, which truly established the composition as one of perennial popularity from the seventeenth century onwards.
The Birdtrap is one of the earliest and certainly most significant winter landscapes of the Netherlandish tradition.
In contrast to the Hunters in the Snow, where the figures trudge through a stark, still countryside, this work shows villagers enjoying the pleasures of winter in a more convivial atmosphere. The Birdtrap offers a vivid evocation of the various diversions of wintertime. In the middle ground, blanketed by snow, a group of villagers are skating, curling and playing games of skittles and hockey on a frozen river. The cold winter air, conveyed with remarkable observation through the artist’s muted palette, is carefully, and deliberately, interrupted by the bright red clothes worn by some of the figures which serve to enliven the scene.
Brueghel’s composition, however, has been interpreted as possessing a more sombre significance. The eponymous trap at the right of the composition has been regarded as a metaphor for the skaters on the frozen river below. The composition is crowded with birds who gather around the trap, unaware of the danger it poses to them. Likewise, the villagers rush onto the ice without apparent consideration of the possibility of it breaking beneath them. The ephemeral nature of life, which risks being cut short at any moment, was a message commonly associated with ice and winter in the early modern Netherlands: a print made by Hieronymous Cock after Pieter Bruegel the Elder of Skating before the Saint George’s Gate, Antwerp bears the inscription ‘Oh learn from this scene how we pass through the world, Slithering as we go, one foolish, the other wise, on this impermanence, far brittler than ice’ (N.M. Ortsein, Pieter Brueghel the Elder: Drawings and Prints, exhibition catalogue, New York, 2001, p. 176). This lot is sold with a copy of a certificate by Dr. Klaus Ertz, dated October 2016, confirming the attribution after first hand inspection.