The theme of the Blind leading the Blind derives from Matthew, XV: 13-4, in which Christ, told that he had angered the Pharisees by criticising their spiritual leadership, replied : 'Let them alone: they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.' Hieronymous Bosch painted the earliest known treatment of the theme, in a work known only through a later engraving by Pieter van der Heyden, published by Hieronymous Cock (see P. Lafond, Hieronymous Bosch. Son art, son influence, et ses disciples, Brussels and Paris, 1914, illustrated opposite p. 94). It was taken up again in an engraving by Cornelis Massys of circa 1540, showing four figures rather than Bosch's two, before being again depicted by Van der Heyden and Cock in 1561. The present composition is arguably the most famous in art, however, and was devised by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in his painting of 1568 in the Museo e Galleria Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples.
Bruegel's work may well have been inspired by Van der Heyden's renditions of the theme, which subsequently entered into the general vocabulary of Flemish art, but the composition remains very much that of Bruegel, so much was it adapted and developed by him. It is known in a handful of versions of his picture: Klaus Ertz in his 2000 catalogue raisonné of the works of Pieter Brueghel II, lists three: in the Louvre, Paris, the Galleria Nazionale, Parma, and the collection of the Princes of Liechtenstein. One might think that these were by Pieter Brueghel II, or even Pieter III as has been suggested, but it seems almost certain that neither artist ever saw the Naples picture. That work is first recorded along with the Misanthropist (also of 1568 and tempera on canvas) in the 1612 court order inventory of Giovanni Battista Massi's palace in Parma; from that they were taken to Naples, and have remained there ever since. Both paintings were probably a commission from the same patron, and their very unusual medium and support suggest they were produced for overseas dispatch; if so, they probably had left the Netherlands before Pieter II was much more than five years old.
The closeness of palette of the known copies of Pieter I's picture suggest that they derive from the original rather than through an engraving or drawing. The present composition is actually closer to the Naples picture (which is probably cut on the right and upper edges) than the three in public collections - for example it is the only one of the four to share the arrangement of the lower left foreground. There are slight differences - for example the horizon on the right hand, behind the stream, or the curved off roof of the barn in the left background. It is unlikely therefore to be the missing link hypothesized by Ertz between the Naples work and its copies; it remains, however, of considerable interest as arguably the closest known version to Pieter Bruegel the Elder's original.