Born shortly before the death of his famous father, Pieter Bruegel I, Jan Breughel I revolutionized the genre of landscape painting in Northern Europe, and is often characterized as the most significant artist in that part of the world between his father and the great Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), with whom he frequently worked. Though Pieter Bruegel I developed the formula of arranging figures traveling along a country road which recedes into the distance, Jan masterfully refined these images, focusing on conveying the vast depth of the withdrawing landscape and the corresponding carefully diminishing scale of the figures. His meticulous atmospheric perspective is enhanced by the varying tones of green, blue, and brown which dominate the lush forest surrounding the makeshift path, while his sensitivity to the humanity of his peasant subjects is evinced by the humble and variegated tasks they have undertaken in the foreground. The juxtaposition of the living and the dead—the verdant woods with a fallen dead tree, and the living horses with a horse’s skeleton—reflects the mortality of all living things that results in their eventual return to the earth.
Klaus Ertz dates the present work to c. 1607, relating it to the similar autograph versions of the composition (with variations) in the Staatliches Museum, Schwerin (inv. 2378) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (inv. 1974.293), the latter of which is signed and dated. A preparatory drawing, sold at auction in Leipzig in 1930, is also signed on the reverse by the artist, and inscribed as having been made on the 3rd of December, 1607. As such, the present work can be counted among the group of pictures from the first decade of the 17th century which would become the most important in the development of Jan Breughel I's revolutionary landscape painting.