The Birdtrap is one of the most enduringly popular compositions of the Netherlandish landscape tradition and one of the most familiar of all the works within the Brueghel corpus of paintings. This hitherto unpublished example is a notable addition to a group of at least forty versions by Pieter Brueghel II that are accepted as autograph (see K. Ertz, Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere, Lingen, 2000, pp. 605-621, nos. E682-E725). The earliest known dated example is from 1601 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), and a dendrochronological analysis of the present panel indicates that it is amongst the earliest treatments of the subject. The report (available on request) establishes a terminus post quem of 1587 for use of the panel. Pieter Brueghel II joined the guild of Saint Luke in Antwerp in 1584/85.
The prototype for the composition is often thought to be the painting in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels; however, as Klaus Ertz points out (op. cit., p. 576), the attribution of that work to Pieter Bruegel I, whose signature and date it bears, is not beyond dispute. He believes, instead, that the prototype may be a lost work by Jan Breughel I, inspired by his father's famous Hunters in the Snow of 1565 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).
The distinctive beauty of the composition derives from the introduction of the unusual bird trap theme above the view of villagers at play on the ice -- a scene inspired by that in the middle ground of the Hunters in the Snow. Ertz describes it as a simple, genre-like landscape; however, this to a degree underestimates the inventiveness and originality displayed in the as-yet-unidentified prototype. It has been suggested that the underlying subject of the picture is the precariousness of life, with the obliviousness of the birds toward the threat of the trap mirrored by the carefree play of the skaters upon the fragile ice. In the catalogue of the exhibition Le Siècle de Brueghel (Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, 27 September-24 November 1963, p. 69) Georges Marlier identified the village depicted as Pede-Ste-Anne in Brabant.