Pieter Brueghel's Bird Trap is one of the most enduringly popular compositions of the Netherlandish landscape tradition, and one of the most familiar works of the Brueghel family, known in more than 120 versions from the family's studio and followers. It has traditionally been thought that the prototype for the composition is a painting by Pieter Bruegel I, signed and dated 1565, in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels. That view is not, however, beyond dispute: although Friedländer considered it to be an autograph work by Pieter I, authors as early as Groomann and Glück were doubtful of the attribution, and the question remains open. Klaus Ertz has advanced an alternative theory in Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere (op. cit., p. 576) that the prototype for The Bird Trap may instead be a lost work by Jan Brueghel I inspired by his father's famous Hunters in the Snow of 1565 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), to the middle ground of which the present composition clearly relates.
Whatever the prototype, the distinctive beauty of the composition remains unchallenged. After the Vienna picture, the view represents one of the earliest pure representations of the Netherlandish landscape (in the catalogue of the exhibition Le siècle de Brueghel, Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, 27 September-24 November 1963, p. 69, George Marlier identified the village depicted as Pède-Ste-Anne in Brabant, the silhouette in the background being that of Antwerp) and one of the seminal examples of the theme of the winter landscape. Indeed, within that genre, it is perhaps the most expressive of all such compositions due to the introduction of the unusual bird trap theme above the view of the villagers at play on the ice; Ertz, (loc. cit.), describes the composition as a simple, genre-like landscape; however, this to a degree underestimates the inventiveness and originality displayed.
The theme of the winter landscape, and in particular that of skaters on ice, has often been suggested to represent the precariousness of life: indeed such a topic is even inscribed on an engraving after Pieter I depicting a winter landscape with skaters on the ice before the Saint George Gate at Antwerp: Lubricitas Vitae Humanae. La Lubricit de la vie humaine. Die Slibberachtigheyt van's Menschen Leven. Similar underlying lessons are well documented in the oeuvre of Pieter I but are rarely translated into his son's work. The Bird Trap, however, is given an aspect of lasting poignancy -- over and above the beautifully atmospheric landscape -- by the addition of its symbolical theme: the obliviousness of the birds towards the threat of the trap mirrored by the carefree play of the skaters upon the fragile ice. It is perhaps a mark of Brueghel's empathy with his subject that the subtle motif is absent in so many adaptions by his followers: for example, the Winter landscape by Abel Grimmer in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels.