This is one of a group of paintings by Jan Brueghel I dating from the first decade of the seventeenth century depicting travellers paths meandering through woodlands. One of the earliest is the Road in a wood of 1605 in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, regarded by Klaus Ertz, in his 1979 catalogue raisonné of the artist's oeuvre as 'eines der wichstigsten Bilder innerhalb der Jan'schen Entwicklung in der Landschaftsmalerei [one of the most important pictures in the development of Jan's landscape painting]' (Jan Brueghel der Ältere, Munich, 1979, p. 149).
Along with the Munich painting, Ertz ranks that of the same subject and dated 1607 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; of the latter painting, he lists five autograph versions and variants: one in a Belgian private collection; that in the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp (with staffage by Vrancx); two other paintings in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich (one also with staffage by Vrancx); and a painting in the Saulmann collection, Florence. Since Ertz's 1979 publication, two other paintings have come to light depicting paths through woods: the present picture and that exhibited in the 1993-4 Age of Rubens exhibition (Boston, Museum of Fine Arts; and Toledo, Museum of Art, no. 82), also dated 1608.
That latter work and the present painting are of particular interest, representing as they do the only examples of Jan's paintings of this group - with the 1605 Munich picture - that do not closely derive from that in the Metropolitan Museum. The Boston exhibition picture maintains the secondary vista of the Munich painting, whereas the present work follows the advance of the Metropolitan painting in restricting the perspective to a single vanishing point; the staffage, on the other hand, in some ways recalls more the Munich landscape, notably the foreground wagon with, riding in it, a mother and child, whilst the broken trees and horse's skeleton show the development of the Metropolitan Museum painting. Ertz dates the remaining works of the group to circa 1607, on the grounds of their connection to the latter, but (given that there is a version of the New York picture by Jan II, datable to circa 1625) one might also suggest that they were painted over at least the next few years, quite probably after this and the Boston picture, which by contrast represent Jan I's early exploration of the shared theme.
This picture was formerly in the remarkable collection of Etienne-François, duc de Choiseul. Two extraordinary visual records make it possible to reconstruct the taste of Choiseul's collection: the 'Choiseul box' (1770-1; Paris, Baron Elie de Rothschild private collection), a gold snuff-box made by Louis Roucel with miniature views by Louis-Nicolas van Blarenberghe, depicting Choiseul and his friends at his Paris hôtel in the rue de Richelieu, surrounded by his collection; and the 1771 catalogue of the collection by Pierre-François Basan, consisting of 124 engravings of Choiseul's finest pictures and one of the earliest catalogues of a private collection to be copiously illustrated.
Although he had begun to collect earlier (including Dou's Sick Woman in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg, and the Poulterer's Shop in the National Gallery, London), Choiseul started to buy in earnest following his marriage in 1750 to Louise-Honorine du Châtel, great-niece and heiress of Pierre Crozat. His wife inherited the hôtel shown in Van Blarenberghe's miniatures, as well as a few pictures including Watteau's Summer (Washington, DC, National Gallery of Art) and Tintoretto's Judith and Holofernes (Madrid, Prado). Choiseul himself bought with discernment at the big Parisian and Netherlandish art sales, as well as from great private collections, building up one of the finest holdings of northern paintings ever assembled. Among his pictures were eight works by Rembrandt (for example the Finding of Moses; Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.), Gerard ter Borch's Woman Playing a Theorbo to Two Men (London, National Gallery), Claude's Mercury and Io (Dublin, National Gallery) and, displaying an original taste for the time, Louis Le Nain's Forge (Paris, Louvre). During his time as ambassador in Rome, Choiseul had himself painted with friends by Giovanni Paolo Panini in an Imaginary Gallery of Ancient Roman Art (1757; New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art). Choiseul fell from favour at the end of 1770 and, banished to his château at Chanteloup, was forced by financial difficulties to sell his collection, which took place at the Hôtel de Choiseul from 6 to 10 April 1772.
Dr. Klaus Ertz has confirmed that he will include this painting in the forthcoming supplement to his catalogue raisonné of the works of Jan Brueghel I.