Pieter Brueghel the Younger's bucolic vision of the Flemish countryside in high summer is amongst the most harmonious and iconic subjects in his oeuvre. Approximately twenty treatments of the theme are known, for which the artist liberally adapted elements from the work of his father: his seminal painting of 1565 (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art; fig. 1), which is one of a series of six monumental paintings representing times of the year; and his drawing of 1568 (Hamburg, Kupferstichkabinett), which was engraved by Pieter van der Heyden and published as a series of the Four Seasons by Hieronymous Cock in 1570 (fig. 2).
This panel is one of the outstanding treatments of the subject by Pieter the Younger and one of only two known works on this scale that adopt this composition, the other being a painting of 1624 (formerly, Christie's, London, 11 December 1981, lot 126; Ertz, loc. cit., no. E632). While the majority of Pieter the Younger's versions rely heavily on the Hieronymous Cock print, featuring the two large figures in the foreground - one drinking and the other wielding his scythe, the present work looks more closely at the New York painting, most notably in the group seated in a circle in the right foreground, who are modelled directly on the figures in his father's painting. At the same time, the pattern of the wheat field and the arrangement of figures receeding back to the village depend closely on the print. Although clearly indebted to his father's two prototypes, the choice of motifs and the combination of elements in this work prompted Ertz to regard it as the furthest removed of Pieter the Younger's Summers from his father's and evidence of an increasingly individual artistic personality seen by Ertz as 'recht eigenständiger Maler' (a rather independent painter; Iop. cit.).
The variations in this picture serve to dilute the sense of ribaldry and bawdiness of high summer that is present in the engraving and instead promote an idea of ordered work, harmony and union. The seated group serves as an adjunct to the busy activity of the harvest, while the figural forms of the workers that populate the scene are echoed in the ordered stacks of corn that recede into the distance. There is a concord between work and rest, between man and nature, with neither appearing to dominate the other, providing a contented pastoral vision of late summer. The composition is pleasingly closed off by the gnarled tree to the right, which Brueghel has introduced in this version, serving as an end point to the gentle camber of the terrain.