'Antverpiae pictor ruralium prospectuum' - these are the words below the engraved portrait of Pieter Breughel the Younger in Anthony van Dyke's Iconography of 1630-31. Pieter the Younger's facility with bucolic views, whether populated with rural folk or, as in the present lot, nearly devoid of human activity, was the hallmark of his long, prosperous, and highly innovative career. Even before his death, contemporary landscape painters acknowledged the great debt owed to Pieter II, indicative of the breadth of his talent and oeuvre.
While Pieter the Younger's sketchy biographical details - a surprisingly small amount is known about him - have historically led to scholarly disagreement, it is widely acknowledged that his inspirations as an artist came mainly from exposure to his father's drawings and paintings. Pieter and his younger brother, Jan the Elder, had access to many of these in the original, and others they knew from engravings. His grandmother, the miniaturist Mayken Verhulst, was married to Pieter Coecke van Aelst (see lot 6 in the present sale), who was another important influence in Pieter's artistic education.
It was only in the last 20 years of his life, from approximately 1619 onwards, that Pieter the Younger found his own creative voice and branched away from the copies and close reinterpretations of his father's work that had originally made his career and reputation. His experience replicating Pieter I's work gave him a feel for sure draftsmanship (many of the works he copied have extensive and complete underdrawings) and a taste for the colorful local characters who inhabit the genre scenes popularized by his father. Pieter II's propensity toward landscape was, however, obvious - the most frequently copied work of his early career, the Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird-trap, of which nearly 60 variants are known by his hand, features an extensive landscape and relatively few figures.
The present work is a variant of one of a set of four views of a river, now in the National Gallery, Prague. In these four scenes, Pieter the Younger directs himself away from the influence of contemporary world landscapists, such as Joos de Momper, Lukas van Valkenburgh, and even his brother, toward a smaller, more intimate view. The eye is brought lower, and the scope of the scene is narrowed to small vignettes that expand on the idea of man's smallness within the great world. This view, in particular, with its craggy outcrop dominating two-thirds of the image, includes only one small road, with a winding fence that looks eerily (purposefully, perhaps) like a row of crosses; as we follow it, we see the shadows of two figures disappearing beneath a natural bridge. Despite this slightly morbid imagery, the use of warm ochers imparts the feeling of sun-warmed rocks, while the blue tones of the sky and the blue-green of the grassy knoll that extend beyond the outcrop lend the scene an aura of rural calm.