The works of Pieter Bruegel the Elder are among the most enduring of Western art. His compositions were disseminated through a robustly active workshop led by his descendants, and a print market that perpetuated his influence for decades after his death.
While today his drawings are scarce, in the artist's lifetime and the generation immediately following it, they were highly influential, their compositions often circulated through prints. There are only between 61 and 63 extant drawings by Bruegel, the core of which was established by Mielke in his seminal 1996 (posthumous) publication. Other drawings are known through copies or contemporary documentation. Of the known and fully attributed drawings, the number of those in private collections is exceedingly small. 53 securely attributed drawings were included in the 2001 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum; only three, including the present lot were listed as being from private collections, and there is a recently rediscovered Bruegel landscape drawing now in a private collection (Sellink, 2013, op. cit., p. 311, fig. 24).
The present drawing is from a particularly transformative period early in Bruegel's career when he was especially active as a draughtsman, concentrating mainly on landscape compositions. It dates to between 1552-54, towards the end of the artist's sojourn in Italy. At this juncture in his career Bruegel was focused mainly on drawings and prints, and his compositions bear the influence of his artistic contemporaries in the Italian peninsula. While it is not a distinctly Italianate landscape and there are no identifiable Italian buildings or monuments, this drawing does share stylistic similarities with other drawings assigned to this period. These are generally characterised as having a looser, less schematic, free penwork. The short, slightly curved pen strokes in the present drawing create a blur of foliage and atmospheric effects around the tree which is in the centre of the composition.
A large tree at the centre was a favourite compositional motifin Bruegel's landscape drawings. See also, for example, his Wooded landscape with mills of 1552, now in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan (Inv. F.245, INF. N.9; N. Orenstein, ed. Pieter Bruegel: Drawings and Prints, exh. cat., New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001, pp. 88-89, no. 2). Like the present sheet, it was executed when the artist was in Italy, and despite the absence of any Italianate or classicising motif in the buildings that dot the landscape, the stylised twists and turns of the central tree trunk and branches demonstrate an awareness of the compositions of the Venetian landscape specialist Domenico Campagnola (1500-1564), themselves widely disseminated through prints and drawings.
Other Bruegel drawings organised around a large central tree in the foreground are Landscape with Saint Jerome, Landscape with bears, and Cow pasture before a farmhouse (Orenstein, op. cit., nos. 11, 15 - recto, and 19), as well as the rediscovered Wooded landscape with a river valley and travellers of 1553 (Sellink, ibid.). The present drawing shows similarities to Wooded landscape with a river valley and travellers in other respects. Both drawings show a mule being led by a figure on foot, both seen from behind, and both drawings include the distinctive motif of what Sellink describes as Bruegel's 'rocket' birds. In addition, in both drawings, Bruegel uses a similar technique of varying the weight of his pen stroke, heavier lines to create density and weight in the foreground, lighter strokes in the background for a more atmospheric affect.