This is Pieter Brueghel the Younger's finest treatment of one of his rarest compositions. Klaus Ertz, in his 2000 catalogue raisonné of the artist's works (op. cit.), records just three other autograph versions, none of which can claim to match this example in terms of its overall quality. The painting is exceptional within this group for the underdrawing throughout the composition and the pronounced pentimenti it reveals; for instance the position of the barrel, the left foot of the central protagonist, and the articulation of the background details. In addition, the faces of all the main figures are carefully underdrawn which attests to the high level of characterisation they possess. These elements are only symptomatic of the artist's most accomplished works and indicate strongly that this picture is Brueghel's prime treatment of the subject, a notion first noted in the sale catalogue of another version sold in 1994: 'the prominent pentimenti in that picture (the present lot) seemed to establish it as the prime original' (quoted by Ertz, (loc.cit.). One of the three other versions is dated 1614 (private collection; Ertz, no. E1333), which can be regarded as a terminus post quem for the present work.
The Egg Dance was a traditional game played in the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries as a part of the springtime folk festivities. A chalk circle would be drawn on the ground, often encircling an obstacle course of flowers, vegetables and an assortment of debris. Then, accompanied by the music of bagpipes, the players would take it in turn to use their feet to roll an egg out of a bowl, keeping it within the circle, finally turning the bowl upside down back on top of the egg. The challenge was to complete the movement without allowing the egg to leave the circle or, if applicable, touch the flowers, leaves or anything else, all the while of course ensuring the egg remained whole. The first player to succeed would win a spring-themed prize, usually a basket of eggs.
The subject recurs in a number of different paintings in early Flemish art: a particularly famous depiction is Pieter Aertsen's oil of 1552 in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, but other examples are knownn, including the earliest two paintings of nearly identical composition depicting The Fight between Carnival and Lent from the circle of Hieronymus Bosch in the Museum Het Catharijneconvent, Utrecht (on loan from the Rijksmuseum), and in the Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp. Brueghel's composition, however, derives from a composition by Cornelis Massys, engraved by Frans Huys (published by H.J. Raup, Bauernsatiren, Entstehung und Entwicklung des bäuerlichen Genres in der deutschen und niederländischen Kunst ca. 1470-1570, Niederzier, 1986, p. 213, fig. 194a), although the background is of Pieter's own invention.
Brueghel's background is interesting, placing as it does the scene in the context of a kermesse, which is familiar from other compositions within the artist's oeuvre. In the far background, the procession carrying the Host returns to the church, the villagers kneeling as it passes, a scene found in a number of Brueghel's depictions of the kermesse theme; for example, Saint George's kermesse or The return from the kermesse. In the middle ground, peasants dance to a bagpipe player, whilst near them a man drunkenly gropes a woman and another woman leads her inebriated husband home - a couple depicted as the main subject in the painting in the Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, and for which there is a drawing in the Kupferstichkabinett,Städelsches Kunstmuseum, Frankfurt.
Klaus Ertz has suggested that the juxtaposition of those contrasting motifs indicates a very slight moral running through the painting. It is almost always the case with Pieter II that moralising undertones that permeate the art of his father, Pieter Bruegel I, are only discreetly (if ever) translated into the son's works. However, Dr. Ertz may well be right in linking those motifs with the presence of the man in monastic clothes holding a pewter flagon of wine, juxtaposed with the woman and man pointing at the eucharistic bread by the glass. Given the traditional interpretation of the egg as a representation of the incarnation of Christ and the redemption of man, it may be that there is a veiled reference to the virtuous path in life leading to salvation, contrasted with the dangers implicit in the middle and foreground scenes. In that context, the motif of the woman dancing around the fragile egg assumes an obvious significance, albeit one that is largely hidden beneath the more evident rustic scene.