This hitherto unknown panel represents a fascinating addition to the oeuvre of Pieter Brueghel the Younger, immediately assuming a key place as the artist’s only known actual portrait of an identifiable sitter. Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) was perhaps the most significant and influential humanist thinker of the northern Renaissance, who had a profound impact on the shaping of modern thought and religion. His posthumous portrait by Brueghel shows not only the lasting influence he had on European beliefs and devotions, but also demonstrates something of the personal affiliations the Brueghel family had with his work.
The painting appears to be based on a portrait of Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger painted in circa 1523 and now in the Louvre, Paris, where he is shown working on his translation of the Gospel of Saint Mark (fig. 1). Holbein’s prototype is distinctly intimate, with the viewer placed in a position almost looking over the sitter’s shoulder while he works in the privacy of his home. The painting was apparently sent to England soon after its creation, but another version, which was purchased from the artist’s wife in May 1542 by Bonifacius Amerbach (1495-1562), a humanist writer greatly influenced by Erasmus’ work, remained in Basel where Amerbach lived (Basel, Kunstmuseum). The exact prototype for Brueghel’s Erasmus is somewhat difficult to determine, and no documentary evidence shows him travelling to Switzerland where he may have seen Amerbach’s picture. It is more likely that this portrait was based on a print made by Holbein after a medal by Quentin Massys, published in Gilbert Cousin’s 1533 Efigies Des. Erasmi Roterodami (London, British Museum). This woodcut focuses more closely on Erasmus’ profile head than Holbein’s painted versions (though these do appear to have served as a model for the print), presenting the wrinkles around the sitter’s eyes, the curling grey hair beneath his hat and the stubble across his chin with a characteristically energetic and engaging manner. The inscription of Holbein’s woodcut, ‘ERASMVS ROTERODAM’, is also strikingly similar to that included by Brueghel in this small panel.
Though critical of the abuses which were rife throughout the Church, Erasmus remained a Catholic throughout his life, distancing himself from the progressive Protestant reforms of Martin Luther (1483-1546). Erasmus strongly advocated religious toleration, arguing that the violent disagreements which raged between Catholics and Protestants be tempered ‘because in this way the truth, which is often lost amidst too much wrangling, may be more surely perceived’ (Erasmus, De libero arbitrio diatribe sive collatio, 1524). It is quite probable that the Brueghel family shared this ecumenism: an engraving of Temperance, from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Seven Virtues series, shows a group five figures engaged in a religious dispute, ignoring a Bible lying on a lectern nearby. Just as Erasmus warned in his De libero arbitrio, Bruegel perhaps conveys his own religious views: that religion depended not on rigidly pursued theological debate and dispute, but on individual study of the Gospel and private contemplation.
While no other named portraits by Brueghel the Younger can be cited, the handling of this work can be compared directly with a few small-scale character heads, such as the Portrait of a Farmer (private collection, Switzerland; see K. Ertz, Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere, Lingen, 2000, II, p. 962, no. 1381, fig. 768). Both works, each on panel and almost identical in size, share Brueghel’s unmistakable use of thin paint glazes over a carefully drawn outline to describe the form and contours of the face, together with the same meticulous rendering of hair and stubble. It should also be noted that the configuration of the inscription in the present work, written in capital letters, accords precisely with what we know of the artist’s handwriting from other inscriptions and the way in which he signed so many of his paintings. This lot is sold with a copy of a certificate by Dr. Klaus Ertz, dated October 2016, confirming the attribution after first hand inspection.