This verdant forest scene is a remarkable early work by Jan Breughel the Elder. In 1589 Jan travelled to Italy, stopping first in Naples in 1590, and then remaining in Rome from 1592-4 under the patronage of Cardinal Ascanio Colonna. It is from this period that the present painting is believed to date, circa 1593, and it can most closely be compared to a version about half as large and on copper, A forest landscape with a stag hunt, in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. The latter, long considered the work of Breughel's contemporary Pieter Stevens, was reattributed by Klaus Ertz to Jan the Elder. The present version on panel is a further exciting discovery, unrecorded and in a private collection in Germany, until the 1998 exhibition in Cremona when it was examined alongside the Vienna version for the first time.
Ertz has suggested a date of 1593 for the Vienna picture, placing it slightly earlier than related forest views in Milan and Zurich (which he dates to circa 1595) and in the middle of Jan's Roman sojourn; Jan's earliest securely dated works, formerly Colonna collection, Rome and Palazzo Pitti, Florence, are from 1594. The panel support of the present work is unusual as most of Jan's earliest paintings were on copper, yet despite the larger size, the artist's affinity for the copper support and the dazzling precision it offers are well translated here. Particularly key in establishing an early date is the brushwork, with the leaves painted in clusters with short staccato brushstrokes; in later works by Jan, the leaves are defined by longer brushstrokes. It is not the sort of expansive Weltlandschaft format his early pictures often adopt, as the trees confine much of the activity to the foreground, but the high vantage point allows an intriguing glimpse deeper into the forest where, in the distance, tiny deer flee from the approaching hunters.
The Vienna copper and the present painting are similar in composition, yet the overall feel of the pictures differs slightly as the former is a more elongated rectangle while the latter is proportionally taller. This sense of additional height produces a more spacious feel, with a greater expanse of sky and less of a looming overhang of leafy branches. The central path, and consequently the recession into space, appears longer and deeper as well. The influence of Paul Bril, a fellow Fleming active in Rome, is evident in the intensely contrasting lights and darks and juxtaposition of strong forms. Jan uses the gnarled tree stump in the foreground as a repoussoir to draw the viewer's eye inward, a device to which the artist returned on a number of occasions. In what is considered the last of his wooded landscapes of this type, the Landscape with woodcutters (private collection, Germany) dating to circa 1609, he once again includes the tree stump device though at this point it is more naturally absorbed into the surrounding landscape.
The figures of the hunters in the present panel reappear in three other forest landscapes by Jan, including the Vienna version. At the lower left of the panel, a hunter, accompanied by two dogs, clambers over a fallen tree. On the path just beyond him, and partially obscured by the fallen trunk, his companion leads the way. These elements remain remarkably consistent, even to the colour of the jacket worn by the second hunter, a point of vivid red in the midst of the lushly atmospheric palette of blues and greens. It is well worth noting that the same two figures appear in a work sold at Sotheby's in 1969 as Vinckboons, but now considered the work of Pieter Brueghel II. That the same figures appear in works by both brothers suggests that there may at one time have been a prototype by Pieter I, now lost.
The panel bears on its reverse the seal of the Waldbott von Bassenheims, a Westphalian family first recorded in the 14th century as knights and stewarts. They are recorded in the district of Drachenfels (Dragonrock), a town situated on a hill above the Rhine, about 7 miles southeast of Bonn. According to ancient Teutonic legend, this was the site of Sigurd's epic battle with the dragon Fáfnir.
The present painting will be included in the forthcoming addendum to Klaus Ertz's catalogue raisonné on Jan Breughel I.