Never before offered at auction, this remarkable panel appears on the market after several generations in a distinguished French collection in Nancy, where it was acquired sometime in the 19th century by Maurice Abraham de Zincourt. De Zincourt was an avid collector of Dutch and Flemish pictures of the highest caliber; his acquisitions included both the stunning Rottenhammer sold at Christie's, Paris, 21 June 2012, lot 15 (€1,241,000) that was almost certainly painted for the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II von Hapsburg, and the world record-breaking Mars and Venus by Joachim Wtewael, sold at Christie's, London, 3 July 2012, lot 8 (£4,633,250).
Artistic collaborations like that in the present work were common in 17th-century Europe, and the Breughel family of painters was particularly fond of this practice. Jan Breughel I, son of Pieter Bruegel I, enjoyed a lucrative and highly successful career as a painter of landscapes and still-lifes rendered in exquisite detail and built many collaborative relationships with fellow artists working in both northern and southern Europe. Jan I was famed for his revolutionary attention to atmosphere and depth, which he combined with a clear appreciation for the genre scenes popularized by his famous father. In 1589, Jan I left the Netherlands on an Italian sojourn, traveling to Naples, Rome, and Milan. In the mid-1590s, he met Hans Rottenhammer I in Rome. Rottenhammer had arrived in Italy three years earlier after training with Hans Donauer in Munich, and his fortuitous encounter with Brueghel in the Italian capital led to many years of fruitful collaborations. Breughel's return to Antwerp in 1596 did not diminish the two artists' desire to work together, and they began a practice in which Breughel would start a picture in Antwerp and then send it by carriage to Rottenhammer so that he could complete the staffage. Here, Breughel would have been responsible for the meticulously rendered snowy landscape populated by skaters on a frozen stream and travelers making their way through a village, as well as the city beyond – almost certainly Antwerp – emerging out of the hazy distance. Rottenhammer, then, would have added the putti along the upper register, scattering flowers in blessing on the world below.
Dr Klaus Ertz, to whom we are grateful, has confirmed the attribution to Jan Breughel I and Hans Rottenhammer I on the basis of firsthand inspection (written communication, 23 June 2016). Dr. Ertz further notes that the thick, heavy copper support is typical of production in Antwerp between 1600 and 1610, and suggests that the picture would likely have been started in Antwerp and then sent to Rottenhammer, at that time still in Venice, for completion. It would probably, as Ertz also suggests, have then been returned to Breughel for any finishing touches, including the addition of the flowers and blossoms scattered throughout the sky. Ertz dates our picture to c. 1605, pointing out that it relates to another version of the "revolutionary" composition now in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan (inv. no. 75/26; see K. Ertz, Jan Brueghel II, Lingen, 2008-2010, III, no. 532), which was also painted around the same time. Two versions of a Baptism of Christ (one sold at Lempertz, Cologne, 19 November 2011, lot 1227 and now in a private Belgian collection; and the other sold at Christie's, London, 4 December 2012, lot 21) -- also collaborations between Breughel and Rottenhammer -- are dated by Ertz to c. 1608, and reveal an almost identical grouping of putti in the clouds at upper center.