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This lot has been imported from outside of the UK … Read more THE ECLECTIC EYE. PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED EUROPEAN COLLECTOR

The Massacre of the Innocents

The Massacre of the Innocents
oil on panel, marouflaged
47 1⁄4 x 65 3⁄8 in. (120 x 166 cm.)
Lorelano Lupi, before 1962, from whom acquired by the following,
Vittorio Ducca, Milan, 1962.
Charles de Pauw (1920-1984), Brussels; (†) Sotheby's, London, 9 April 1986, lot 25 (£220,000), when acquired by the present owner.
G. Marlier, Pierre Brueghel le Jeune, Brussels, 1969, p. 73, no. 4.
K. Ertz, Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere: Die Gemälde mit kritischem oeuvrekatalog, I, Lingen 1998⁄2000, p. 351, no. E 292, fig. 292, with erroneous exhibition history.
Special notice

This lot has been imported from outside of the UK for sale and placed under the Temporary Admission regime. Import VAT is payable at 5% on the hammer price. VAT at 20% will be added to the buyer’s premium but will not be shown separately on our invoice.

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Clementine Sinclair
Clementine Sinclair Director, Head of Department

Lot Essay

Undoubtedly one of the most poignant interpretations of the Massacre of the Innocents, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s rendering of the tale on the stage of a wintery Netherlandish village stands as one of the most recognisable scenes in the history of art. The greatest contribution to its dissemination was made by his son Pieter Brueghel the Younger, who painted at least eleven autograph versions after the original by his father, with six remaining in private hands, including the present panel (Ertz, op. cit., pp. 350-53).
Bruegel the Elder’s prime, now widely accepted as the picture at Hampton Court Palace (inv. no. LC9 HC 1290), was painted in circa 1565-7, and shortly after came into the possession of the Hapsburg Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612) in Prague, before entering the collection of Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689), until 1660, when it was acquired by Charles II of England (1630-1685) at Breda for the Royal Collection (see L. Campbell, The Early Flemish Pictures in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen, Cambridge, 1985, pp. 13-19).
Although we do not know the circumstances in which Brueghel the Younger studied and copied the picture, he would have done so before at least 1604, when it was recorded in Rudolf II’s collection by Karel van Mander in his Schilder-Boeck (Haarlem, 1604), and no later than 1593, the date of his earliest signed and dated version, now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lons-le-Saunier (inv. no. 6). Klauz Ertz has noted the particular closeness of the present picture to the version in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Brussels (op. cit.), signed and dated 1604, in particular the shared motifs of the crown on the gable of the house in the left foreground, not found in Bruegel the Elder’s original, and six sticks rather than the original four protruding from behind the wall to the right, suggesting that the present work may have been executed at around the same date.
While the subject of the Massacre is drawn from Matthew 2:16-18, Bruegel set the narrative within the context of his lifetime, imagining Bethlehem as a contemporary Netherlandish village covered in snow, with the Feast of the Innocents falling on 28 December. Lorne Campbell has argued that Bruegel would not have been able to depict the frozen scene with such naturalism had he not recently experienced the exceptionally cold winter of 1564-5 (ibid., p. 19), when, perhaps not by coincidence, he began to paint snow landscapes such as his Hunters in the Snow (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum) and Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap (Brussels, Musée des Beaux-Arts), both of 1565; The Census at Bethlehem of 1566 (Brussels, Musée des Beaux-Arts); and Adoration of the Magi in a Winter Landscape of 1567 (Winterthur, Collection Oskar Reinhart Am Römerholz).
There has been much debate as to the extent of Bruegel’s allusions to contemporary events in the scene, with the political subtext often interpreted as an indictment of the excesses of Habsburg soldiers in the war-torn Low Countries during the second half of the sixteenth century. In 1567, Phillip II of Spain appointed the Duke of Alba Governor General of the Netherlands and deployed him with a powerful army to suppress all those suspected of heresy or rebellion, occasioned by a violent, iconoclastic outburst by the growing minority of Calvinists; his rule would come to be known as the ‘Council of Blood’. It has been argued that Bruegel alludes to the Duke in the figure of the menacing, bearded knight in dark armour, looming threateningly in the background with his cavalry, bunched together like a bristling forest of spears.
Above the company flies a standard with five crosses, resembling those of the arms of Jerusalem, at once a reference to the men of King Herod, who oversaw the Biblical Massacre of the Innocents, and to King Philip II of Spain, who claimed the title of King of Jerusalem as a hereditary right. The subject matter thus allowed Bruegel to conceive the narrative within his favoured theme of genre, combining sixteenth-century peasant life with richly attired heralds, military and civic officials and mercenary landsknechte, who were popularised by the prints of artists like Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, Sebald Beham and Urs Graf (fig. 1).
Pieter the Younger’s dissemination of the Massacre of the Innocents not only ensured the survival and spread of his father’s reputation – as the majority of Bruegel the Elder’s original paintings disappeared into noble private collections, like Rudolf II’s – but also preserved the original composition before its mysterious censorship; perhaps before 1617, and certainly before 1660, when it entered the Royal Collection, the tragedy of the scene in the Hampton Court version was softened when the infant victims of the Massacre were overpainted, possibly at the behest of a squeamish owner or even Rudolf II himself. In place of the babies were added parcels, poultry, farm animals and other objects, with some of the houses to the left painted as if in flames, removed during a partial cleaning in 1941-2 (Campbell, ibid., pp. 13-14).
Infrared reflectography of the present picture reveals a complete and meticulous underdrawing of his father’s original composition, applied directly on the imprimatura, typical of the young Brueghel and on a par with some of his greatest works. As Currie, Allart and Saverwyns have discovered, the artist systematically used cartoons in his copying practice (D. Allart, C. Currie and S. Saverwyns, ‘A Copy that does Justice to its Model: The Massacre of the Innocents by Pieter Brueghel the Younger’, Brukenthal Acta Musei, VII, no. 4, 2012, pp. 664-5), which also led to the spontaneous and expressive freehand underdrawing evident in the present picture. The individual character of these drawing lines can stylistically be compared to those found in his Brussels version (see ibid., p. 685, fig. 20b), further attesting to a possible similar date of execution. The artist here further reveals himself through his slight deviations from other versions; beside the barrels and logs in the foreground can be seen the beginnings of the legs of a male figure, visible both in the infrared and to the naked eye, while in the lower right, the cavalryman with the feathered hat is shown to have originally had four plumes in the underdrawing, as in the Elder’s prime, which the Pieter the Younger here reduced to two in the painted layer.
A note on the provenance:
Charles de Pauw (1920-1984) possessed one of the largest collections of paintings by the Brueghel family ever assembled, and in particular by Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Acquiring a painting by the artist in 1974 almost by accident, he amassed a collection of forty works attributed to him in the space of ten years (see V. Prat, 'L'homme aux quarante Brueghel: Les chefs-d'oeuvre secrets des grandes collections privées’, Figaro Magazine, Supplement, no. 11, 1985), sixteen of which were sold at the sale of his collection in 1986, including the present picture.

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