PIETER BRUEGHEL THE YOUNGER (Brussels 1564/5-1637/8 Antwerp)
Property of an Important Private Collector
PIETER BRUEGHEL THE YOUNGER (Brussels 1564/5-1637/8 Antwerp)

A Flemish Proverb: ‘The man who cuts wood and meat with the same knife'

PIETER BRUEGHEL THE YOUNGER (Brussels 1564/5-1637/8 Antwerp)
A Flemish Proverb: ‘The man who cuts wood and meat with the same knife'
signed ‘P. BREVGHEL’ (lower centre)
oil on panel, circular
7 1/8 in. (18 cm.) diam.
Private collection, Belgium, where acquired by the following,
with Johnny van Haeften, London, by 1997, from whom acquired by the following,
Anonymous sale [Property from a Private Collection]; Sotheby’s, New York, 24 January 2008, lot 5, where acquired after the sale by the present owner.
K. Ertz, in Pieter Breughel d.J.-Jan Brueghel d.Ä., Flämische Malerei um 1600: Tradition und Fortschritt, exhibition catalogue, Essen and Vienna, 1997, p. 362, fig. 1.
K. Ertz, in Pieter Breughel d.J.-Jan Brueghel d.Ä.: Een Vlaamse schildersfamilie rond 1600 / Une famille de peintres flamands vers 1600, exhibition catalogue, Antwerp, 1998, p. 342, fig. 120a.
K. Ertz, Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere, Lingen, 2000, I, p. 215, no. 148, colour plate 146.
Cremona, Museo Civico Ala Ponzone, Breughel-Brueghel, Tradizione e Progresso: una famiglia di pittori fiamminghi tra Cinque e Seicento, 26 September-20 December 1998, no. 18.

Lot Essay

Pieter Brueghel the Younger found inspiration in many of the same sources as his celebrated father, Pieter Bruegel the Elder: scenes of peasant life and the vernacular pastimes of Flemish society. He often reiterated compositions and themes that his father had created, but also created new subjects, entirely of his own invention, as is the case here. In his 2000 monograph on the artist, Dr. Klaus Ertz listed the present painting as the prime version of this original composition by Brueghel the Younger and described it to be of the best quality that the artist attained in the 1620s. He recorded six other autograph versions, of which only two are signed: the present picture, and another version, sold at Christie’s, New York, 19 May 1993, lot 27 ($107,000).

Brueghel painted a number of these small round panels, indicating that the subjects resonated with a wide audience. Many were bought in pairs or in sets. Among the ninety works of this format considered autograph by Dr. Ertz at the time of the writing of his monograph, only twenty-nine are recorded as signed, this work included, and only another seven as signed and dated.

Various interpretations have been suggested for the meaning of this splendid little painting. It clearly depicts a subject derived from a traditional Flemish proverb or saying; however, in the centuries since the painting’s execution, the meaning of this proverb has become obscured and is now a matter of conjecture. Ertz has attempted to explain its significance, suggesting that the present panel does not simply represent an allegory of taste, but rather that it has a much more complex meaning. The representation of the old man in relation to the younger man, still in the flower of youth, makes a direct allusion to the passage of time and the evanescence of life. Furthermore, the figure of the old man is also often used in 16th and 17thcentury art as a personification of Winter, again an allusion to the passing of time and the rhythm of peasant life with its changing seasons. The rebirth that occurs in nature when spring succeeds winter was important both in Christian typology and indeed in the pre-Christian folk traditions of Northern Europe.

Another meaning was suggested while this work was with Johnny van Haeften, this one more closely related to the action taking place in the painting. The picture was then titled The man who cuts wood and meat with the same knife, an interpretation much more in keeping with the proverbial tradition of these types of paintings by Brueghel. It may also refer to ‘keeping one’s eye on the job’, as both figures are distracted by something out of view with the consequent danger of the younger man cutting his thumb. .

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