We are grateful to Dr. Klaus Ertz for confirming the attribution on the basis of first-hand examination, noting that the work, which is at least seventeenth-century in date, may in fact belong to the period of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, i.e. the sixteenth century. Dr. Ertz suggests that the panel may originally have been a painted trencher, or ornamental plate, similarly to the celebrated set of Twelve Proverbs in the Museum Mayer van den Bergh in Antwerp (see M. Sellink, Bruegel: The Complete Paintings, Drawings and Prints, Bruges, 2007, no. 72, pp. 123-4, dated 1558 and given to Pieter Bruegel the Elder; and K. Ertz, Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere, Lingen, 2000, I, pp. 115-33, as by an early follower of the artist). Although mounted on a single panel of 74.5 x 98.4 cm., the Twelve Proverbs are actual twelve individual circular panels, each 21 cm. in diameter. It has long been believed that they might be the twelve small panels recorded in the 1621 estate inventory of the Antwerp collector Nicolaes Cornelis Cheeus, where they are described as teljooren (plates), and the twelve works described as tallooren in the 1663 inventory of Anna de Schot (see J. de Coo, Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Catalogus 1, Antwerp, 1978, no. 339, pp. 40ff.). Although recent studies suggest that the panels could already have been mounted between 1560 and 1580, the use of the words teljooren/tallooren has given rise to the theory that they may actually have been used as decorative or ceremonial platters, not unlike the deschi da parte of an earlier Tuscan tradition. Dr. Ertz notes that the present panel probably belonged to a larger set like the Twelve Proverbs, with a coordinated thematic or allegorical programme. The subject of this work would have been suitable, for example, as a representation of Winter in a set of the Four Seasons, or as the Choleric Humour in a set of the Four Temperaments. The subject of the Four Classical Temperaments, or Humours, enjoyed a revived popularity in the sixteenth century, with Dürer’s celebrated Melancolia I engraving (1514) widely known. A set of Four Temperaments, with four expressive physiognomies closely cropped against a black background – as here – had been painted by Dürer’s pupil Hans Schäufelin in 1511 (two panels in Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, and two in a private collection, Switzerland). The choice of a woman to represent the Choleric Humour would be unusual, but can be traced through a long-standing iconography of ‘angry women’, expressed in works such as Bruegel’s Dulle Griet (‘Mad Meg’), also in the Mayer van den Bergh, and earlier in the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch (for example the Tabletop of the Seven Deadly Sins in the Prado, Madrid), Jan Mandijn and Quinten Massys.
Dr. Ertz also notes the similarity of this profile to that of the Head of a peasant woman by Bruegel the Elder in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich (Sellink no. 168, dated circa 1568). This work, believed to be the only surviving example of a number of tronies he is thought to have painted, shows a woman of similar features and complexion, similarly closely cropped (perhaps cut down), in a white bonnet and against a dark background. A number of works exist which are believed to be copies after other lost tronies by Bruegel the Elder, the best of which is the famous Yawning Man on an oval panel in Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique (Sellink no. X4, Ertz no. E1376*), long attributed to Bruegel the Elder and now given by Ertz, together with a group of other heads, to Brueghel the Younger; interestingly many of these are circular, like the present work. A circular panel depicting a grey-haired man in near profile, facing right, could record a representation of the Phlegmatic Temperament to match the present work’s Choleric; considered by Max Friedländer to be by Bruegel the Elder, it was sold in these Rooms, 8 December 1993, lot 205, as a Follower (£26,000).