This delightful roundel, possibly painted directly from Pieter Bruegel I's original composition (fig. 1), is one of only two known autograph versions by the artist's son, Pieter Brueghel II. As the second is in the Historisches Museum, Bamberg, this particularly fine example of The Drunkard pushed into the Pigsty is the only one by Pieter II remaining in private hands.
Simultaneously a charming vignette of peasant life and a humorous illustration of a Flemish proverb, the composition was popularized through engravings by or after Jan Wierix (1549-1618), as well as through painted versions by Pieter Brueghel II's workshop and his circle. Wierix's engraving (fig. 2), which dates from 1568, seems to have been made directly from the original painting by Pieter I, which was sold at Christie's, London, 10 July 2002, lot 37 (£3,306,650/$5,125,308) and is now in a private collection. The popularity of the composition can be judged from the number of publishers' names found on the engraving's various states. First issued by Merten Peeters van Ghelle (b. c. 1500), called Martinus Peri, versions are also recorded by C.J. Visscher and P. Goos. There is also a rectangular engraving, in reverse, with the addition of a landscape background and the inscription 'P. Breughel invent: C. Visscher excudebat' (fig. 3); the absence of Wierix's monogram suggests that this latter engraving dates from after his death in 1618.
Close study of the present version by Pieter II suggests that, he like Wierix, had seen his father's painting in person. Not only does it faithfully reproduce the colors of the original, which would be extremely unusual if the artist was working exclusively from his father's cartoon or from Wierix's engraving, but also the signature appears in the same position on the pig's trough in both of the painted versions; in Wierix's engraving on the other hand, it has shifted to the right, above the lower edge. Works by Pieter II that conform in coloration to his father's source material are rare: most often the son seems to have worked from drawings passed down in the studio and from print sources. The present work therefore holds a distinguished place in the oeuvre of Pieter Brueghel II as one of his most faithful tributes to the work of his father. Pieter II could have seen the original painting in the house of Gillis van Coninxloo II (1544-1606), who, according to Van Mander, was the son's uncle and master (see R. van Schoute and H. Verougstraete, op. cit., infra, to which the present note is much indebted).
The round format of the panel reflects its original purpose as a painted plate. It is an example of a tradition that was well-known in the Netherlands at the time and in which specialists, called teljoorschilders, were recorded among the members of the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke from 1570 to 1610. Approximately 70 survive from the 16th century, of which 20 are discussed by De Coo ('Die bemalten Holzteller, bekannten und neuentdeckte ihr Schmuck und seine Herkunft', Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch, XXXVII, 1975, pp. 103-104). The present plate was probably originally one of a series, much like the version of this composition by Pieter II in Bamberg, which is from a set of four, the others depicting The arrow maker, The bread eater and The gift (the last signed 'P. BREVGHEL'). The underlying subject matters of such plates are thought to be moralizing. For example, The bread eater is thought, from the old man at the window and the broken tree sprouting anew, to be a memento mori, while The Gift refers to vanity and foolishness, the bed in the background suggesting what the woman might give in exchange for the mirror that she covets.
The present picture is similarly meant to convey a moralizing message. In the Visscher engraving, which is entitled 'The Pig must go into the stall', the central man is referred to directly as a pig. Bastelaer, Marlier and others who have subsequently written about the composition, however, instead describe the principal as a drunkard, although there is no clear reference to alcohol in the picture. Around the title of Visscher's engraving, however, is a quatrain that reads: 'Die haer goet als droncken Swynen Brengen door in Venus Kott Moeten nae elendich quynen Endelyck int Varckensschott [Those who, like drunken pigs, waste their time and good in the house of Venus, will in the end have to be pushed, after miserable decay, into the pigsty]'.
The combination of drunkenness, gluttony and lust is all referred to in the iconography of the picture. The pig has long been connected with excess - gastronomic, alcoholic and, by extension, sexual - in Western European symbolism; the abundant use of pork in the Carnival season (pig's head, trotters and pork sausages were traditional Carnival dishes) may have contributed to the association. In the mid-14th century, the Flemish caricaturist Van Tielt depicted a pig that, as patron of the guzzlers, moves along in a procession on a litter carried by apes, while Cornelis Anthonisz. (c. 1499-1553?) depicted Incontinence with a pig's snout. The symbolism was not restricted to pictorial references: so, for example, a 16th-century refrain mentions 'een versmoordt dronckaert als een zwyn [a besotted drunkard like a swine]', whilst in the Spel van sinnen van de Hel van 't Brouwersgilde [Morality Play of the Brewers' Guild], servants of Bacchus are compared to 'ontijdige verckens [dirty pigs]' and 'droncken swijnen [drunken swine]'. Similarly, Vondel recounts that Lucifer, lieutenant of the Almighty, was changed into a monster with the marks of seven beasts, one of them being 'een vratigh gulzigh zwijn [a gluttonous greedy swine].' In 1557, the same year in which Pieter Bruegel I painted the prime version of the present composition, he also completed the series of the Capital Sins, which were engraved the following year by Van der Heyden and published by Hieronymus Cock. In those, the figure of Gluttony [Gula], is depicted as a woman drinking greedily from a jug, sitting on a pig and eating turnips similar to those in the present work - turnips along with other root crops being regarded as symbols of base behavior.
Although the subject of the painting is moralizing, its treatment is typically sympathetic. The Bruegel family's oeuvre includes some of the best-loved images in European art: five centuries after their creation, masterpieces such as his Hunters in the Snow or Wedding Banquet (both Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum; see lot 33, fig. 1) reveal an empathy with human nature that is rare in the history of art. This derives from Bruegel's and his son's extraordinary ability to depict the frailty and folly of mankind, and also to project a sympathetic and often humorous attitude toward it. In the present picture that sensibility is tangibly felt: as with his father's, Brueghel II's stage shows no moral superiority: the drunkard is no more ignorant or blind than those pushing him -- indeed his outward glance implies that he alone is aware of that irony -- and, more pertinently, looks to the viewer, as if to ask: 'Are you so much better yourself?'.