Mass production is not a concept typically connected to the work of Old Masters. But upon examining the output of Belgium’s Brueghel dynasty — four of which by Pieter Brueghel the Younger appear in the Old Master and British Paintings sale on July 9 — one realizes the notion of painting the same image again and again to refine, perfect, re-explore, and re-examine a resonant composition did not begin in the studio of Andy Warhol.
‘The breakthrough of the father, which was carried on by the son,’ begins Francois de Poortere, head of the Old Masters department at Christie’s New York, ‘is to capture the spontenaiety of true life, commemorating the moments and lives of the emerging 17th-century bourgeousie.’ Impressively, the often brutally reflective compositions were enormously popular with their contemporary patrons, leading the artist to create multiples of a single image, which only enhanced the work’s appeal. ‘There’s a lot of recognition in the familiarity,’ says Poortere. ‘Brueghel was his own best advertisement.’
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The commercial nature of the studio’s practice, however, hardly detracted from the quality of the work produced. As examined in our 2014 private selling exhibition, The Bad Shepherd, the Brueghels influenced scores of artists up through the present day: from Peter Doig, who notes specific choices of painterly representation to depict a composition’s symbolic aspects, to Neo Rauch and Jeff Koons, whom the show's curators view as the heirs to the Brueghels’ penchant for parody of their subjects and the consequential irony rife within many of the pictures. ‘The reason his market has developed is because of his tremendous appeal across the board,’ says Poortere.
Indeed, Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s A Country Brawl, 1610, sold for £842,500 at Christie's London last December. Now four more come to the block. ‘It's rather rare that we have so many Pieter Brueghels in one sale,’ says Poortere, ‘and each is evidence of the artist’s production in different ways.’
Pieter Brueghel II (Brussels 1564/5-1637/8), The Birdtrap. Oil on oak panel. 15 3/8 x 22 ¼ in. (39 x 56.5 cm.). Estimate: £2,000,000-3,000,000. This work and those below are offered in the Old Master Paintings Evening Sale in London on 9 July
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This image is one of the artist’s most iconic landscapes, known to have been painted at least 127 times with only 45 known to have been signed by Breughel the Younger. ‘Pieter Brueghel the Younger took much inspiration from his father’s work,’ Poortere continues, ‘and one can see the inspiration from the Elder’s The Hunters in the Snow, 1565, which is in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum.’
Scholars have noted, however, how the Younger’s winter scene is somewhat softer than his father’s. But in his observations on the artist, Doig noted snow has being a conduit through which Brueghel the Younger insinuates notions of the sinister. Still, ‘it was quite a popular subject,’ explains Poortere. ‘The bourgeoisie at the time were very interested in this image and that’s why so many of them were produced.’
Pieter Brueghel II (Brussels 1564/5-1637 Antwerp), The Wedding Feast. Oil on oak panel. 28 ¼ x 41 ¼ in. (71.8 x 104.7 cm.) Estimate £1,500,000-2,500,000
‘On the flip side, The Wedding Feast is a composition that is much more rare within the Younger’s oeuvre,’ Poortere adds. ‘I believe there are only four versions of this composition, which is pretty exciting and, as a result, you don't see one come up very often.’ Hailing from a private collection in Belgium, this is the first example to come to market since the late 1970s.
Pieter Brueghel II (Brussels 1564/5-1637/8 Antwerp), The Outdoor Wedding Dance, 1621. Oil on oak panel. 16 x 20½ in. (40.5 x 52 cm.) Estimate: £1,200,000-£1,800,000
‘These four works are on the high end of the spectrum of what the Brueghel studio could produce,’ says Poortere. ‘One that I particularly love in terms of quality and condition is the Wedding Dance.’ Part of the Cunningham Collection, the renowned collection of Dutch and Flemmish Old Master works assembled by Lizanne and Philip Tracy Cunningham in the 1990s, the work has been on loan to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., since Philip’s death in 1999.
‘This composition is one of the very best I have seen,’ says Poortere in light of the 30 known signed examples. ‘It’s signed. It’s beautifully dated. And it's of great quality and condition.’
Pieter Brueghel II (Brussels 1564/5-1637/8), The Kermesse of Saint George. Oil on oak panel. 28 3/8 x 40 5/8 in. (72.1 x 103.2 cm.) Estimate £2,500,000-3,500,000
‘The Kermesse of Saint George is one of the artist’s great compositions,’ Poortere explains. ‘With lots of figures, great perspective, and lots of action, it’s arguably the most important work of those being offered.’ He also notes the monumental scale: 28 3/8-by-40 5/8 inches (72.1-by-103.2 cm): ‘They don't come up very often. I've only known a couple since I’ve been doing this.’ Also unusual, the piece is an independent composition as opposed to influenced by a piece created by the Elder, and only three are known to exist.
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