This picture is an exquisite and beautifully preserved example of what is arguably the Brueghel dynasty’s most iconic invention. With no fewer than 127 versions of varying quality surviving, The Bird Trap is one of the most enduringly popular images in Western art. The sheer number of these extant examples suggests that many would have been workshop productions. By contrast, the present work is one of only 45 panels to have been recognised as autograph by Klaus Ertz, the leading expert on the artist, who praised its ‘remarkable quality and perfect state of conservation, certainly [a work] by the hand of the master himself’ (K. Ertz, Breughel-Brueghel, Antwerp, 1997, p. 369). Although not dated, the picture was, in all likelihood, painted after 1616, as it is signed ‘P.BREUGHEL’, a spelling of his last name that the artist only adopted after this date, over the previous ‘BRUEGHEL’, possibly as a way for the son to differentiate his work from that of his father, Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Debate remains as to which member of the Brueghel family devised the prototype for this successful composition. A Bird Trap signed and dated 1565, now in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels, has been considered by some, including Max J. Friedländer, as the original version of the theme painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Another version signed and dated 1564, formerly in the A. Hassid collection in London, has also been considered to be the original by the Elder. Others scholars, such as Grooman and Glück however, believe that neither of these two paintings are by the Elder. The invention of this popular composition could be entirely his elder son’s Pieter or alternately that of his younger progeny Jan (for a summary of the debate, see Ertz, 1998, op. cit., pp. 169-71). In any case, the prototype would have derived from Pieter the Elder’s seminal cycle of the Seasons (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum; Prague, Lobkowicz Palace; and New York, Metropolitan), itself indebted to the calendar tradition found in manuscripts and books of hours, and here brilliantly translated and adapted in panel painting. In that capacity, it is especially reminiscent of Pieter the Elder’s masterpiece Hunters in the Snow (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum).
The Bird Trap is a vivid evocation of the various delights of wintertime: in a hilly landscape, blanketed in snow, a merry band of country folk are skating, curling, playing skittles and hockey on a frozen river. The cold winter atmosphere is conveyed with remarkable accuracy by the artist’s sober and muted palette, mainly made up of blues and earthy tonalities, while the bright red frocks worn by some of the figures enliven the whole composition. The graphic, intricate network of entwined bare branches set against the snow or the light winter sky creates a lace-like pattern of the utmost decorative effect. Almost abstract, it contributes to the uncanny modernity of the picture. George Marlier identified this picturesque village as Pède-Sainte-Anne in Brabant, while the city silhouetted in the far distance is probably Antwerp.
However realistic it may be, this delicate winter image is not exempt from an underlying lesson on the precariousness of life. An inscription under an engraving of Winter by Pieter Bruegel the Elder clarifies the theme: ‘Lubricitas Vitae Humanae. La Lubricité de la vie humaine. De Slibberachtigheyt van’s Menschen Leven’, that is the ‘Slipperiness [or fragility] of human life’. Indeed, the eponymous bird trap is meant to emphasise the obliviousness of the birds towards the threat of the trap which, in turn, is mirrored by the carefree play of the skaters upon the flimsy ice. Likewise, the fishing hole in the centre of the frozen river, waiting for the unwary skater, functions as a reminder of the dangers that lurk beneath the light-hearted pleasures of the Flemish winter countryside. Brueghel delivers with this remarkable work a message of lasting poignancy about the fickleness and uncertainty of existence.
A composition of distinctive poetic beauty, the Bird Trap’s success had a profound effect in the history of landscape painting and contributed to the emergence of the winter landscape as an autonomous genre. Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s achievements, brilliantly exemplified in this picture, would be echoed and perpetuated in the following decades by the painters of the Dutch Golden Age such as Hendrick Avercamp and Aert van der Neer.