This grand series of six paintings recounts the story of Adam and Eve as it unfolds in the book of Genesis. Included in Klaus Ertz's catalogue raisonné on Jan Breughel II as dating to around 1650 and signed by the artist (Ertz, op. cit., I, pp. 295-296), these paintings portray a dynamic combination of figures, animals, and landscape that form a cohesive whole. By producing works like the present group, Jan Breughel II sustained the ensemble format established by his father Jan Breughel I, which remained highly popular through the middle of the seventeenth century.
Each of the pictures depicts a crucial episode in the lives of Adam and Eve. In the first scene, God bends over Adam, creating him from the soil as a menagerie of animals looks on with curiosity. In the next panel, Adam is naming the animals; Breughel has depicted Adam standing in an elegant contrapposto, his arms out-stretched towards an ox, fox, dog, rabbit, monkey, and lions, among others, as well as to birds flying overhead as God watches from the sky above. Eve appears in the following two panels, which depict scenes of the Temptation and the Expulsion from Paradise. The visual components remain constant as Breughel included the same landscape and animals in every scene. Yet he altered these elements to echo the tenor of narrative. In the Temptation, the landscape is lush and fruitful as the animals look on with curiosity at Eve holding out an apple to Adam, while in the scene of the Expulsion they jump and flap their wings in alarm as God the Father presides over uprooted trees and a cloud-filled sky. In the fifth panel, outside the Garden of Eden, Adam works in the field, as Eve and their sons, Cain and Abel, sit nearby. In the final scene, Adam and Eve bend over the body of Abel, murdered by his brother Cain.
While Jan Breughel II adopted this theme from his father, it was one to which he returned repeatedly and also expanded upon. In this instance, aside from the Creation of Adam, he borrowed the figural groups from a series of prints by Jan Saenredam after Abraham Bloemaert from 1604. (In Bloemaert's series, the Tree of Life takes the place of the Creation of Adam). Although Breughel changed the format from vertical to horizontal, the figures display the pronounced musculature and dramatic gesture of the Bloemaert prints.
These panels also display Breughel's willingness to collaborate with other artists, a trait for which his family and their workshop are well known. Given the difference between the handling of the figures and their surroundings, Ertz posits that another artist was responsible for the figures. Breughel frequently collaborated with his peers, including Peter Paul Rubens, Hendrick van Balen, and Joos de Momper. This willingness to cooperate with other artists helped the Breughel workshop to be particularly prolific and, as noted by Ertz, Breughel often produced multiple versions of the same picture, which were highly valued by his contemporaries (written correspondence, 21 January 1982). In this series, he maintained the illustrious visual tradition established by his father while also displaying his forward-thinking attitude towards workshop practice and artistic collaboration.