Dated 1610, this exceptionally well-preserved work is the earliest version of one of the rarest and most dynamic of Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s subjects: The Country Brawl, known in French as La Rixe. Described by Dr. Klaus Ertz as ‘une merveilleuse version de 1610’, he places it within his catalogue raisonné at the head of ten autograph versions of the composition, four of which are in museums: Montpellier, Musée Fabre, inv. no. 876-3-4 (Ertz no. E1056*); Prague, Národní galerie, inv. no. VO 1371 (E1058*); Berlin, Staatliche Museen Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Gemäldegalerie, inv. no. 676 (E1060*); and Philadelphia, Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection (E1063*). These nine other works can be further subdivided into groups with differing sizes: six works which are roughly 40 x 60 cm., three which are roughly 75 x 100 cm., and one odd format at 27.4 x 32.8 cm. (Ertz no. E1059). Only eight of these works are dated (one indistinctly, E1062) and only five are signed and dated. All of the dated versions were painted in the same four-year period, 1619- 1622, with the exception of the present work. The form of the signature, using the spelling ‘BRVEGHEL’, is unique amongst the various versions, the other signed ones using the spelling ‘BREVGHEL’, which seems to have been adopted by Pieter Brueghel the Younger only after circa 1616.
The date of 1610 gives the present work a special status within the context of the known versions of this subject. Executed during this earlier period of Brueghel’s activity, the Coppée picture is distinguished by its highly elaborate under-drawing (visible in infrared reflectography; fig. 1), its extraordinary attention to detail and the high quality of its execution. These factors combine to make this not only the earliest, but also the finest of all the known versions of this extraordinarily powerful composition.
There is some debate as to the origins of the subject. It is one of the few compositions by Pieter Brueghel the Younger which cannot be matched to a surviving prototype by his celebrated father, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. This could suggest that the composition is entirely of Pieter the Younger’s invention, as would seem to be the case for some other subjects, for example the Payment of the Tithes (also known as The Country Lawyer, see Ertz nos. E489-E511a). It is assumed, however, that it is the only record of a lost painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, which could have been known to Pieter the Younger in the original, or through a studio cartoon or preparatory drawings. As early as 1907, Hulin de Loo argued that a composition of such accomplishment must go back to the Elder: ‘c’est un des groupes les plus complexes, les plus vivants, les plus violents et les plus réalistes et en même temps les plus plastiques dont l’histoire de l’art nous fournisse l’exemple...Bruegel a atteint ici l’apogée de son art’ (‘this is one of the most complex, the most lifelike, the most violent, the most realistic and at the same time the most sculptural figural groups of which the history of art provides example...here Bruegel [the Elder] attains the apogee of his art’, in G. Hulin de Loo, ed. R. van Bastelaer, Peter Bruegel l’Ancien: Son oeuvre et son temps, Brussels, 1907, cited by Marlier, op. cit., p. 265). In his discussion of the present picture in the 1998 exhibition catalogue (op. cit., p. 396), Ertz notes the strong resemblance of the facial types to those in works by the Elder, such as The Nest Robber (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum) or the drawing Summer (Hamburg, Kunsthalle, Kupferstichkabinett). There is, moreover, an engraving of the composition by Pieter the Younger’s younger contemporary, Lucas Vorsterman (1595- 1675), which shows the event in reverse, and bears within the image rectangle the inscription ‘Peter Bruegel invent’ (fig. 2). Assuming that this is a reference to the Elder and not the Younger Pieter, this would indicate an awareness on the part of the generation of artists which included Pieter the Younger, his brother Jan Brueghel the Elder and the latter’s friend, Sir Peter Paul Rubens, of the authorship of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. To complicate matters, however, the print – which must date to circa 1620 – also bears in its legend a long dedication in Latin to Jan Brueghel the Elder, ‘Clariss. Praestantissimoq. Viro Dño Ionni Bruegelio, Petri Bruegelii sui temporis Apellis Filio, Paternae Artis haeredi ex asse, hoc patriae manus monumentum artifciosissimum’. This effectively dedicates ‘this monument to the art of the father’ to the son of ‘Pieter Bruegel, the Apelles of his time’, Jan Brueghel, ‘the heir of his art’.
On the other hand, like most of his contemporaries, Hulin de Loo was inclined to diminish Pieter the Younger’s creative abilities by comparison to his father’s, and it is not implausible that there was never a prototype by Pieter the Elder, in which case this would be one of the Pieter the Younger’s most successful original inventions. In this respect it can be related to The Bad Shepherd (Christie’s, London, 8 July 2008, lot 38, £2,505,250), a unique composition with no prototype by the Elder, for many years attributed to the Elder because of its high quality (as indeed was the present work), but in fact a masterpiece by the son.
Setting aside the question of the uncertain existence of a prototype by Pieter the Elder, the production and dedication of the engraving shows how highly regarded the composition was in the time of Pieter the Younger, Jan the Elder and Rubens. We know that it certainly inspired Rubens, as a drawing by that artist, in black chalk and wash, repeats several of the figures involved in the tussle (fig. 3; Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen), replacing several of the faces with more typically ‘Rubensian’ types – the figure wielding the thresher at left, for example, is given a beard and a wild shock of hair, as well as muscled calves suitable for a Hercules. Interestingly, the Vorsterman engraving records just such a figure in this role. Vorsterman was one of Rubens’s pupils, working in the studio as the ‘in-house’ engraver, and it is likely that he was given the task of reproducing the Brueghel work with Rubens’s approval. Perhaps Rubens himself commissioned the engraving from Vorsterman – the dedication to Jan Brueghel, who was one of Rubens’s close friends (Rubens painted the touching family portrait of Jan Brueghel with his wife and children now in the Courtauld Institute, London), lends credence to this hypothesis.
They even seem to have collaborated on a version of the picture: a version largely by Jan Brueghel I, but probably retouched by Rubens, is in a private collection (94 x 124 cm.; see the catalogue of the exhibition De Bruegel à Rubens: L’école de peinture anversoise, 1550-1650, Antwerp, 1992, pp. 170-1, no. 73, illustrated in colour). Marlier follows Hulin de Loo and van Bastelaer in citing another, smaller (36 x 46 cm.) putative copy by Rubens’s hand (see Marlier, op. cit., p. 267 and notes). Rubens was a great admirer of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and may have owned as many as twelve paintings by the artist, as recorded by the inventory of his estate (1640). This includes, under no. 142, a painting of ‘Des paysans qui se battent, fait d’après un dessin du Vieux Bruegel’, which would seem to described a painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, based on a design by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It cannot be excluded, however, that Rubens may have owned the prototype by the Elder. Alternatively, it may have remained in family hands, in the possession of Jan Brueghel the Elder – further justification for the dedication of Vorsterman’s engraving of one of Rubens’s favourite Bruegels, which he might have seen in the collection of his friend Jan. Marlier suggests (op. cit., p. 266) that a work which belonged to Jan Brueghel the Elder may be the work which the great British patron and collector, Thomas Howard, 2nd Earl of Arundel, ordered his Antwerp agent Lionel Wake to purchase in circa 1625, ‘a painting begun by Bruegel and finished by Mostaert, showing a peasant brawl over a game of cards, which has been engraved by Vorsterman’. Gillis Mostaert (1534-1598), a sixteenth-century artist, was Fig. 3 Sir Peter Paul Rubens, A country brawl, black chalk and wash © Museum Bojimans van Beuningen, Rotterdam a contemporary of Pieter the Elder’s who outlived him, and who could well have been asked to complete a painting left unfinished. The specificity of the attribution in Arundel’s instructions is striking; assuming it is correct, this may well be the last trace of the prototype. On the other hand, it is not impossible that Arundel’s picture was the present work – it is believed to have come to Amsterdam in 1655, after the death of Arundel’s wife, where it could have been acquired by Rembrandt’s pupil Govaert Flinck, who is known to have owned other pictures formerly owned by Arundel, and to whom the provenance of the present work can hypothetically be traced. The present work was for many years given to Pieter Bruegel the Elder – for example, when in the Lanz collection – an attribution which, given its quality and early date, is not surprising. The early date 1610 makes it that much likelier that the present work may even be the one once owned by Rubens.
The collection of the industrialist Baron Evence III Coppée (1882-1945), was formed in Brussels between 1920 and 1939. The focus was on sixteenth- and early seventeenth- century Flemish painting, with a special emphasis on the work of Pieter Brueghel the Younger whom Coppée much admired for his treatment of humanist themes. In all, he owned nine works by the artist, a group that set the example for many later collectors of Brueghel in Belgium. Much of the collection, including the present lot, was proudly displayed in the beautiful Coppée mansion on the Avenue Franklin D. Roosevelt, Brussels (fig. 4).