AT ONE POINT CONSIDERED THE PRIME VERSION of this celebrated type by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, which is recorded by Karel van Mander as having been in the collection of the Habsburg Emperor Rudolph II (1552-1612) in Prague, it is now accepted as one of the best versions by Pieter Brueghel the Younger. The attribution to Pieter Bruegel the Elder was strongly argued by Leo van Puyvelde in 1938 (loc. cit.), on the basis of its excellent quality and Swedish provenance, as most of the Prague pictures were removed by a Swedish army in 1648 and taken to Sweden. The most serious alternative contender for recognition as the original by Bruegel the Elder was the fine version in Vienna (Kunsthistorisches Museum), as it was acknowledged that Habsburg Imperial pictures could have moved easily between the two capitals of Vienna and Prague, and indeed the Vienna picture appears to be listed in two Viennese inventories of circa 1610-1619. However, cleaning of the version in The Royal Collection, instigated by Kenneth Clark in 1941-1942, revealed that the quality of that version is higher than previously understood; moreover, as discussed by Lorne Campbell in his entry on the Royal Collection picture (op. cit., pp. 14-5), a very plausible Swedish provenance exists for that work as well.
The form of the signature on the major versions is considered to be of significance in placing them within the chronologies of Pieter the Elder's and Pieter the Younger's oeuvres. The Royal Collection picture is signed 'BRVEGEL', which is now accepted as the Elder's signature; the Vienna version is signed 'BRVEG' at the extreme right edge, although the letters 'EL' or 'HEL' may have been inadvertently trimmed off; a version in Bucharest is signed 'P. BRVEGEL'. At the time of its sale in Paris in 1979, the present version appears to have born a fragmentary date in addition to the signature, '.BRVEGEL. 15..' (see Campbell, op. cit., p. 15). We are grateful to Christina Currie of KIK/IRPA for noting that the present version is unusual in that it is signed with the signature form of Bruegel the Elder after 1559, '.BRVEGEL.' without an 'H' and without the initial 'P'. No other versions of the Massacre of the Innocents are securely known to be signed in this way; the implications of this for its primacy in the sequence of versions painted by Brueghel the younger remains to be established.
The subject, drawn from Matthew 2:16-18, has often been interpreted as containing a political subtext, an indictment of the excesses of Habsburg soldiers in the war-torn Low Countries during the second half of the sixteenth century. The menacing, bearded knight in dark armour who leads the cavalry, looming threateningly over the foreground action from the background, bunched together like a bristling forest of spears, has been interpreted as alluding to the Duke of Alba, who led Spanish Habsburg troops in their mid-sixteenth-century incursion of the Southern Netherlands at about the time that Pieter Bruegel the Elder invented this composition. The flag which flies above this company, with its five crosses, is that of the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, at once a reference to the men of King Herod, who oversaw the Biblical Massacre of the Innocents, and to King Philip II of Spain, who claimed the title of King of Jerusalem as a hereditary right. The subject matter allows the artist to combine his favoured theme of peasant life in the sixteenth-century Netherlandish village, with the picturesque sight of richly attired heralds, military and civic officials and mercenary lansquenets - imagery popularised by the prints of artists such as Urs Graf, Niklaus and Hans Rudolf Manuel Deutsch, and others. The tragedy of the scene was softened in the Royal Collection version when the infant victims of the Massacre were overpainted, early in the picture's history and perhaps at the behest of Rudolph II, with more innocuous items such as nondescript packages. The present picture records the original appearance of the composition, and was illustrated alongside the Royal Collection picture in the catalogue for the exhibition Bruegel to Rubens: Masters of Flemish Painting (loc. cit., figs. 39 and 40A-C).
Prince Vladimir Nikolaevich Argoutinskii-Dolgoroukoff was one of the most important figures in the Russian art world of the Silver Age. A close friend of the celebrated painter, stage designer, writer and art historian Alexandre Benois (1870-1960), whom he met while at university in their native Saint Petersburg, Argoutinskii-Dolgoroukoff became an integral, founding member of the World of Art ('Mir Iskusstva') group, which stood behind so much of the cultural life of Russia in 1898-1906 and 1910-1924. His friends included a veritable pantheon of Russian cultural life in the Belle Epoque: not only Benois but Tchaikovsky (fig. 1), Stanislavsky, Diaghilev (whose Saisons russes Argoutinskii Dolgoroukoff once rescued with much-needed funds), Dobuzhinsky, Yaremich, Grabar, Somov and others. A prince by title, he was a member of the Armeno-Georgian noble house Mkhargrdzeli Arghutashvili, which could trace its ancestry to the Achaemenid dynasty of Persia, with claims of Rurikid descent also advanced by nineteenth-century scholars. The family received its title of Prince in the Russian Empire from Emperor Paul I, who granted it to Joseph Argoutian (1743-1801), Catholicos (Patriarch) of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and to his brothers and nephews, for their loyal support. The family was also connected by marriage to the celebrated Russian-Armenian dynasty of the Counts Loris-Melikov. Born in Tiflis (modern Tbilisi, Georgia), Prince Vladimir Nikolaevich studied law in Saint Petersburg and Oxford, entering the diplomatic corps after university, in which capacity he served as second secretary in the Imperial Embassy at Paris. His passion, however, was for the arts - and he pursued this by supporting music and theatre, commissioning works from living artists, and collecting. He began the latter in his youth, and Benois was to recall that the Prince's aim was to assemble a collection which would later enrich Saint Petersburg's museums - an ambition which sometimes led him into debt. In 1916 he returned to Russia and began a new career, an organic extension of his interests, as a curator at the Imperial Hermitage. With other members of the World of Art group, Argoutinskii-Dolgoroukoff co-founded the short-lived (due to the Revolution) Museum of Old Saint Petersburg, where a large part of his collection was displayed 1907-1917. With the Revolution, Argoutinskii-Dolgoroukoff was forced to sell a number of works in his collection, although he had also fulfilled his intention of giving a large part of his collection to the Hermitage and the Russian Museum as a gift. Like Benois and many of their contemporaries, he emigrated to Paris, where he remained a member of the World of Art circle, and where he died in 1941. The memoirs of Benois and Dobuzhinsky frequently recall the Prince as a quiet, friendly and generous companion of exquisite manners and naturally good taste, whose hospitable nature was well-known both in Saint Petersburg and later during the emigration in Paris, and whose elegantly decorated Saint Petersburg flat would be fondly remembered for many years.
It is not clear whether the present work was amongst those given by the Prince to the Hermitage and subsequently sold by Antikvariat (the Soviet government organ for the liquidisation of valuable works of art), or whether it left the collection in some other way. Argoutinskii-Dolgoroukoff is said to have acquired it from 'an old Swedish military family', presumably in Sweden, in which case it must have been his by 1911, the year in which it was transferred from panel onto canvas by the restorer I.I. Vassiliev, whose inscription on the reverse of the canvas charmingly gives his address as Saint Petersburg, Moyka 27, apartment 15. As the hardiest common support for paintings, canvas was considered preferable to panel in the nineteenth century, and the procedure of a panel-to-canvas transfer was practiced throughout Europe when it was thought to help ensure the longevity of a valued work of art. In Saint Petersburg the procedure was prescribed to a great number of pictures in the Imperial Hermitage and other collections, out of fears that the extremities of the local climate would lead to the rapid degradation of panel supports. Almost miraculously, the conservators of the Hermitage, essentially serf carpenters in training, were able to develop a technique for such transfers which has produced some of its best historic results - a blessing given the frequency of its application in Russia. Starting with Andrei Filippovich Mitrohin (1765/6-1845), the 'founder of the Russian School of Restoration', a dynasty of Hermitage restorers can be traced through Mitrohin's pupil Fyodor Tabuntsov (d.1861), and his successors, the brothers Nikolai, Mikhail and Alexander Sidorov, born as serfs in the Kostromskaya Oblast. Alexander Sidorov (1835-1906) grew to such fame for his restorations (including more than two hundred transfers) that he was awarded a number of medals and decorations, and was eventually granted a noble title. The Saint Petersburg restorer of the present work, I.I. Vassiliev, was almost certainly trained by Sidorov at the Hermitage; the transfer here is an exemplary case of the technique, having prevented a major split in the panel and captured the paint layer in a state of preservation much higher than that in which many panel paintings of this scale by Pieter Brueghel survive today.