This luminous and intricately-rendered landscape is one of the largest that Breughel painted on the valuable medium of copper. Dated 1610, it was executed while Breughel was court painter to the Governors of the Southern Netherlands, Archduke Albert and his wife Isabella, and while its earliest provenance has been lost, it clearly constituted a significant commission. It is widely regarded as one of the most important landscapes by the artist to come to the market in recent decades.
This painting is one of the finest examples of a distinct type of landscape that Breughel painted between 1600 and 1619, in which he juxtaposed a close-up view of figures on a country road in the foreground with a panoramic vista beyond, abruptly separated by a precipitous drop. The landscapes produced by Breughel during the early-seventeenth century represent an important development in the genre, merging the tradition of the Weltlandschaft (world landscape), pioneered by artists like Joachim Patinir and Herri met de Bles, with the genre scenes of later generations, which favoured detailed views of figures pursuing their day-to-day activities. The format of Breughel’s panoramic landscapes seems to have developed out of his earlier depictions of The Road to the Market, of which the earliest known example is dated 1601 (formerly with Kaplan, London, 1956), a pendant to an Approach to a village with a windmill (see K. Ertz, Jan Brueghel der Ältere (1568-1625): Die Gemälde, mit kritischem Oeuvrekatalog, Cologne, 1979, p. 570, nos. 78 and 77). By 1610, Breughel had gradually developed away from these earlier more elevated, bird’s-eye perspectives, to scenes depicted from a more natural, lower viewpoint, with a greater horizontal emphasis.
The transition of the split perspective, a device probably inherited from his father, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, is resolved in this picture by Breughel’s subtle gradations of colour: from the browns of the earth and soil that transition into the verdant greens, and deep aquamarine mountains that blend into the luminous sky, Breughel draws the eye deeper into the composition, creating the illusion of depth and distance in the two-dimensional plane through modulations of colour and an orthogonal perspective. The brilliance of his palette and the delicacy of his execution earned him the sobriquet ‘Velvet Breughel’.
The scale and refinement of this copper suggest that this would have been a significant commission for the artist. It was created when Breughel was serving as court painter to the Governors of the Southern Netherlands, the Archduke Albert and his wife Isabella, a position he kept until his death. Breughel painted a small number of comparable compositions in a smaller format, notably River landscape with an animal skeleton in Dresden Gemäldegalerie, dated 1608, with which this picture shares some of the same individual motifs, including the large framing tree on the left. The composition was evidently popular, since a copy was produced by his son Jan Breughel the Younger, in a slightly smaller format (Moscow, Hermitage Museum), and this composition was in fact only known through this copy until the present work reappeared at auction in 1990.
Breughel frequently repeated specific groups of staffage in his landscapes. The meandering cattle in the foreground to the left appear in a possible study, now in the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, dated 1610, while the white cow, the solitary rider to the left and the front horse-drawn wagon recur in Village Road with Cattle and Wagon, dated 1611 (fig. 1; Zurich, Kunsthaus), suggesting they may have been particular favourite motifs of the artist. The church in the distance recurs as a common compositional device in Breughel’s work. Its precise rendering in this picture, which concurs with its appearance in A Summer Landscape with Harvesters of circa 1610, attributed to Jan Breughel the Elder and Joos de Momper the Younger (Ohio, Toledo Museum of Art), bears some semblance to Antwerp’s Cathedral of Our Lady, perhaps evoking the old Flemish proverb: ‘the journey is not over if you can discern the church and the steeple’, meaning ‘do not give up until the task is finished’. The church motif could also be interpreted as a metaphor for the ‘journey of life’. Such symbolism reminded the viewer of the importance of leading a moral life, yet also perhaps carried a political message. With the Twelve Years’ Truce of 1606, lands were reclaimed in the Southern Netherlands that had previously been abandoned, and as a result, agriculture and the rural economy again began to flourish. Breughel’s vision of bucolic harmony here perhaps served to further reassure patrons that this was now a time of political stability in the Southern Netherlands.