A guide to the Brueghel dynasty

As works by Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Jan Brueghel the Elder come to Classic Week, we explores one of art history’s most tangled family trees across almost 200 years — illustrated with lots offered at Christie’s

Pieter Brueghel the Younger, The Netherlandish Proverbs

Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638), The Netherlandish Proverbs (detail). Oil on canvas. 47¾ x 65⅝ in (121.3 x 166.7 cm). Sold for £6,308,750 on 6 December 2018 at Christie’s in London

Many people’s idea of an Old Master painting is a scene of ribald peasant life by Brueghel. Yet most perhaps do not realise that there is a difference between one Brueghel and another, whether in terms of the particular artist’s identity (father, son or sibling), the century in which it was produced, or even the spelling of the name.

The reality is that the Brueghels formed a dynasty — a complex family of artists spanning almost 200 years from 1525 onwards, innovating but also revisiting the work of previous generations to create an enduring Brueghel ‘brand’.

The Brueghels’ familiar snowy scenes and biblical or classical images often convey multiple meanings, revealing the complexity of life in the Low Countries (present-day Belgium and the Netherlands) in the 16th and 17th centuries, when rule by the Catholic Habsburg Empire was being challenged by the schisms of the Protestant Reformation.

Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638), Return from the Kermesse. Oil on panel. 15⅜ x 22½ in (39 x 57.1 cm). Sold for £1,613,000 on 7 December 2023 at Christie’s in London

The vision of this dynasty is so vivid and recognisable that across the years it has influenced artists from Peter Doig to Jeff Koons, and inspired everyone from Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky and poets W.H. Auden and William Carlos Williams to David Bowie.

Who founded the Brueghel dynasty?

It all starts with Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525/30-1569), whose obscure origins are revealed in his surname, which literally means ‘small village’. An exceptional talent, he moved to Brussels as an adolescent to become the pupil of Pieter Coecke, the official artist to the Habsburg court. Coecke would become Pieter’s father-in-law, thus ensuring that his best student continued his business.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569), A village with a group of trees and a mule. Pen and brown ink, traces of brown wash. 7¾ x 10⅛ in (19.7 x 25.8 cm). Sold for £1,082,500 on 7 July 2015 at Christie’s in London

Bruegel later travelled to Italy and absorbed the influence of the Renaissance, but on his return he adapted his vision to the Dutch culture of the Low Countries. His pictures for wealthy patrons were highly individual, portraying peasant life in a sophisticated way.

In works such as The Peasant Wedding or Hunters in the Snow, both now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, he depicts Flemish commoners, while also including erudite and often subversive references to poetry, philosophy, politics and religion.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder was also the first artist known to have captured snowfall in oil paint. The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow is a wonderful evocation of a snowstorm, while Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap shows, in the foreground of a frozen landscape, a trap set before an open window; the unseen figure within serves as a complex metaphor for the divine.

How did Bruegel’s sons follow in his footsteps?

This is one of the great mysteries of the Brueghel legend. Pieter Bruegel the Elder died aged 45, having produced exactly 45 paintings. His sons — Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638), sometimes called Pieter Brueghel II, and Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625), so called because his own son, Jan the Younger, was later named after him — were both under five years old at the time of their father’s death, yet both became incredibly successful artists.

There are various theories about who taught them. Some say that it was Mayken Verhulst, their grandmother, who was herself a highly skilled miniaturist.

Pieter Brueghel the Younger inherited the family business and painted repetitions of his father’s most famous pictures. For example, there are more than 40 copies of The Bird Trap recorded by him. Pieter Brueghel the Younger lived into his seventies and produced a total of almost 1,000 known paintings.

As his career progressed, he increasingly produced his own original compositions, further developing peasant subjects and landscapes and often including subversive elements. In The Netherlandish Proverbs, based on his father’s 1559 composition of the same name, Pieter Brueghel the Younger represented more than 100 proverbs in a scene teeming with figures.

Among the often foolish characters depicted is someone banging their head against a brick wall, another person throwing feathers into the wind, and the blind leading the blind. Some of the proverbs, such as ‘tiling one’s roof with tarts’, have faded from use over the centuries.

One of his best original compositions, The Bad Shepherd (around which Christie’s built an exhibition in 2014), is an ambivalent version of the famous Bible story — you sympathise with the faithless shepherd for deserting his post, even though you’re not supposed to.

Did Jan Brueghel the Elder join the family business?

If Pieter Brueghel the Younger is the responsible son, Jan Brueghel the Elder is the rebel. He went to Italy for almost seven years and befriended many leading artists, including his subsequent collaborator, Peter Paul Rubens.

Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625), The Last Judgement. Oil on copper. 14⅛ x 10½ in (27 x 36 cm). Sold for £504,000 on 7 December 2023 at Christie’s in London

Jan Brueghel the Elder returned to Antwerp in 1600 and was at the cutting edge of what was happening in art. He made allegorical and biblical scenes, and was also one of the first painters of still lifes, particularly flowers. He had inherited from his father — or perhaps his grandmother — the ability to create works containing remarkable amount of detail on a small scale.

His 1610 work, An extensive wooded landscape with travellers on a road, a church in the distance, highlights his skill for painting panoramic vistas. It is one of the largest works he ever executed on copper, which gives the paint a luminous quality, and was made while he was court painter to the governors of the Southern Netherlands.

Farther down the family tree, does the artistic talent disperse?

Eventually. Jan Breughel the Younger (1601-78), sometimes called Jan Breughel II, imitated his father; and although some of the work is excellent, he had lots of assistants and their output has become confused with his. Subsequent generations — including Jan Pieter Breughel (around 1628 - before 1684), Jan Baptist Breughel (1647-1710) and Ambrosius Breughel (1617-1675) — are much less well known.

The exceptions are the son of Jan Breughel the Younger, the amazing still-life painter Abraham Breughel (1631-1697), and the highly accomplished David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690), who joined the dynasty by marrying one of Jan Brueghel the Elder’s daughters.

What is the correct spelling for the name?

It is important to remember there were no definitive spellings in the 16th and 17th centuries. The first version was ‘Bruegel’, used by Pieter the Elder; but in about 1615 Pieter the Younger added an ‘h’, making it ‘Brueghel’, which was then used by subsequent generations and now denotes the whole dynasty. Later the ‘u’ and the ‘e’ were switched, and this spelling is often used to denote less prominent members of the family, from Jan the Younger onwards.

How does the market for these artists differ?

Few, if any, works by Pieter Bruegel the Elder will ever appear on the market. There are occasionally discoveries, such as one made in Spain more than a decade ago, which went straight to the Prado.

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For Pieter Brueghel the Younger, however, there is a broad range of prices owing to the number of works he created. His top price would be around $10 million for a true masterpiece, but some fine examples can be acquired for a few hundred thousand dollars. Because of the rarity of paintings by his father, collectors turn to Pieter Brueghel the Younger, and his work has never fallen in value. Jan Brueghel the Elder was also prolific, and the consistent quality achieved by both brothers, given the quantity of their output, is remarkable.

Explore art from antiquity to the 21st century at Classic Week, 1 to 15 December 2023 at Christie’s in London

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