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. Although no fewer than 127 versions from the family’s studio and followers have survived, only 45 are now believed to be autograph works by Pieter Brueghel the Younger himself, with the remainder being largely workshop copies of varying degrees of quality (see K. Ertz, op. cit., II, pp. 605-30, nos. E682 to A805a). The present panel seems to have escaped scholarship until it appeared on the market in 1980 and has subsequently been praised by Klaus Ertz as being of high quality and certainly autograph (‘von guter Qualität und sicher eigenhändig’ (op. cit., p. 621).
There has been much debate as to which member of the Brueghel family devised the prototype for this successful composition. Traditionally it has been thought to be a painting attributed to Pieter Breugel the Elder, signed and dated 1565, now in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels. That view is not, however, beyond dispute: although Friedländer considered it to be an autograph work by the elder Pieter, authors as early as Groomann and Glück were doubtful of the attribution, and the question remains open. Another version dated to 1564, formerly in the A. Hassid collection in London, has also been considered to be the original by the Elder. In addition, it has been suggested that the invention could be entirely that of either Pieter Brueghel the Younger or his brother Jan (for a summary of the debate, see Ertz in Breughel-Brueghel, exhibition catalogue, Essen/Antwerp/Vienna 1997-1998, pp. 169-71). What remains unchallenged though, is that the prototype was inspired by Pieter the Elder’s famous Hunters in the Snow of 1565 (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum), to the middle ground of which the present composition clearly relates.
Whatever the prototype, the distinctive beauty of the composition remains unchallenged. After the Vienna picture, the view is one of the earliest pure representations of the Netherlandish landscape (in the catalogue of the exhibition Le siècle de Brueghel, Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, 27 September-24 November 1963, p. 69, George Marlier identified the village depicted as Pède-Ste-Anne in Brabant, the silhouette in the background being that of Antwerp) and one of the seminal examples of the theme of the winter landscape. In contrast to the Elder’s Hunters in the Snow, where the figures walk through rather sombre, still countryside, where the air is clear and biting cold, in Pieter the Younger’s The Birdtrap, the figures are enjoying the pleasures of winter in a more welcoming atmosphere. The painting offers, indeed, a vivid evocation of the various delights of wintertime: in the landscape blanketed in snow, a merry band of country folk are skating, curling, playing skittles and hockey on a frozen river. The cold winter air, conveyed with remarkable accuracy by the artist’s muted palette, mainly made up of blues and earthy tonalities, is intelligently broken up through the bright red frocks worn by some of the figures, enlivening the whole picture. Yet the most characteristic feature of the composition is the almost graphic, intricate network of entwined bare branches set against the snow or the light winter sky. It creates a lace-like, almost abstract pattern of the utmost decorative effect.
But beneath the seemingly anecdotal, light-hearted subject lies a moral commentary on the precariousness of life: below one of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s engravings, Winter – Ice skating before St. George’s Gate, Antwerp, is the inscription Lubricitas Vitae Humanae. La Lubricité de la vie humaine. Die Slibberachtigheyt van’s Menschen Leven, that is the ‘Slipperiness [or fragility] of human life’ was added. This label invests the Birdtrap with new meaning: the picture emphasises 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, and the figures of the two children running heedlessly towards their parents across the ice despite the latter’s warning cries, function as a reminder of the dangers that lurk beneath the innocent pleasures of the Flemish winter countryside. Brueghel delivers with this fine work a message of lasting poignancy about the uncertainty and fickleness of existence.