CONSERVED FOR MORE THAN 200 YEARS in the private collection of a single family, until the death of the 8th comte de Gouvion Saint-Cyr in 2012, this fine version of the Payment of the Tithes, sometimes also known as the Country Lawyer, first came to the attention of scholars of the artist in 2003 (see Currie and Allart, loc. cit.). At this time parts of the painted surface were obscured by old overpainting and a dulled varnish, preventing full appreciation of its merits. A recent restoration has unveiled an exceptionally well-preserved original paint layer. The composition is unusual in Pieter the Younger’s oeuvre in that it is neither a direct copy of one of his father’s compositions nor an adaptation of a composition by one of his father’s contemporaries – such as Martin van Cleve – or close followers. Indeed the compositional, figural and facial types of the Payment of the Tithes are noticeably different from those of Pieter the Elder, and its derivation has therefore been the subject of much discussion. Georges Marlier’s early death sadly prevented his discussing it in his monograph on the artist, and it was his posthumous editor, Jacqueline Folie, who listed the then-known versions (G. Marlier, Pierre Brueghel le jeune, ed. J. Folie, Brussels, 1969, p. 435), and first tackled the question in print, in the catalogue of the 1993 exhibition Pieter Brueghel de Jonge (Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht).
Folie proposed on the basis of visual clues that the lost prototype was French. One obvious clue was the fact that the calendar on the wall is written in French, although she conceded that the implication of this was undermined by the fact that French was at the time the language of the legal profession in the Netherlands; in addition, however, she noted that the peasants’ short beards and close-cropped hair, as well as their costumes, were of a type not seen at the time in the Southern Netherlands (see O. Rogeau, ‘Tu vas parler, Brueghel!’, Le Vif/L’Express, 14 June 2002, pp. 32-3). Folie’s proposal was supported by Ingeborg Krueger (‘“... nimbt Gelt, Buter, Hüner, Endten ...”: Zu Darstellungen des Bauernadvocaten von Pieter Brueghel d. J. und anderen’, in Das Rheinische Landesmuseum Bonn: Berichte aus der Arbeit des Museums, III, 1995, pp. 78-85), whilst Dr. Klaus Ertz, in his 2000 catalogue raisonné of Brueghel’s work, hypothesised that the original might be a lost painting by the French artist Nicolas Baullery (1560-1630).
The various versions of Brueghel’s Payment of Tithes paintings can be divided into two main groups, regardless of size: those with plaited straw ropes on the back wall and under the central window, and those with a dark cloth there instead; the present painting is of the former type. An analysis of the two categories shows that, amongst dated versions, the compositional variant with plaited straw and the man on the far left with a grey-blue sleeve appears only in works dated 1615-1617; conversely those with a dark cloth and a man with a red sleeve appear from 1618-1626, with only a few exceptions – including the present work, which has both the plaited straw and the man with the grey-blue sleeve, but is signed and dated 1626. One might therefore hypothesise that Brueghel decided for some reason to change his composition and colour scheme in circa 1618, but reverted to the original scheme in this, the last dated example of the composition. The type of the signature (P. BREVGHEL rather than P. BRVEGHEL) is what one would expect from 1618 onwards (see K. Ertz, catalogue of the exhibition, Breughel-Brueghel: Pieter Breughel le Jeune (1564-1637/8) - Jan Brueghel l’Ancien (1568-1625), Lingen, 1998, p. 19). In addition to the distinction between the two types, the composition occurs in two sizes –a smaller format of circa 60 x 80 cm., an example of which recently appeared in these Rooms (Christie’s, London, 2 July 2013, lot 29, £1,047,475), and a larger size of circa 75 x 125 cm., as exemplified here, as well as by the version of 1616 recently seen on the market (Sotheby’s, 5 December 2012, lot 36, £1,273,250).
The comtes de Gouvion Saint-Cyr are the descendants of the celebrated military commander of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, Laurent Gouvion, marquis de Saint-Cyr (1764-1830). The son of a tanner, Laurent Gouvion rose from humble beginnings to play an important role as one of Napoleon’s generals, commanding an army corps at the start of the ill-fated Russian campaign, winning a victory over the Russians at Polotsk, before the tide started to turn against the French. This achievement earned him a long-awaited marshal’s baton, making him a maréchal d’Empire, and he further distinguished himself at the Battle of Dresden (August 1813), one of the last French victories before Napoleon’s first military defeat at the Battle of Leipzig (The Battle of the Nations) in October 1813, which led to his exile to Elba. Highly-regarded for his talent, probity and modesty, Saint-Cyr retained his influence after the Restoration, being made a Peer of France, a position from which he tried to help his longstanding friend, the famous Maréchal Ney.