The Coppée Preaching of Saint John the Baptist has long been recognised as one of the finest treatments of what was Pieter Brueghel the Younger's most successful and popular large-scale religious composition. Klaus Ertz records thirteen autograph versions, including dated examples from 1601 (Bonn, Rheinisches Landesmuseum), 1604 (St. Petersburg, Hermitage), 1620 (Bern, Ludwig Collection) and 1624 (Stedelijk Museum Wuyts-Van Campen en Baron Caroly), as well as a further seventeen versions from the workshop or by followers of the artist. Marlier regarded the Coppée panel as one of the best versions, and more recently it was deemed by Ertz to be of 'hervorragender Qualitt' (outstanding quality). Having spent the last seventy years in the same private collection, during which time it has never been restored, this is also one of the best preserved examples.
The inspiration for the subject, as with so many of the younger Brueghel's paintings, was provided by a work of his father Pieter Bruegel the Elder, which in this case is widely acknowledged as the picture dated 1566, in the Széptmüvészeti Museum, Budapest. Scholars have long held the view that Bruegel the Elder's picture offered a coded comment on the religious debates that raged in the Low Countries during the 1560s and that it was inspired by the clandestine sermons that Protestant reformers were attending in the countryside at the time. In the central foreground, as here, the artist (a devout Catholic) depicts a man in black who faces the viewer and reads the palm of his neighbour, which can be seen as thinly veiled defiance against Calvin's prohibition against the reading of palms. The distinctive face of the perpetrator suggests that it may be a portrait, and several candidates, including the artist himself, the person who commissioned the painting, or Thomas Armenteros, the adviser to Margaret of Parma, have been proposed, but are without real foundation. The figure of Christ has often been identified either as the man in grey behind the left arm of the Baptist or the bearded man further to the left with his arms crossed.
The popularity of the picture in the time of Pieter Brueghel the Younger, a generation later, when the subject had not only lost its political implications but ran contrary to the religious current of the time, attests to a more general, aesthetic appreciation of the subject. As Jacqueline Folie has pointed out (in the catalogue of the exhibition, Bruegel. Une dynastie de peintres, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, 1980, p. 143), the composition was enjoyed more for its representation of humanity in all its diversity of race, class, temperament and attitude: 'Au delà du message de Précurseur, le theme s'entend à celui, universel, du Christ: la foule bigarrée, agglutinée autour de Jean Baptiste, incarne le genre humain tout entier dans la diversité de ses races, de ses conditions sociales, mais aussi les tempéraments et de ses dispositions intérieurs - écoutes avide, attentive, curieuse, sceptique ou indifférents'.
The collection of the industrialist Baron Evence III Coppée was formed in Brussels between 1920 and 1939. The focus was on 16th and early 17th century Flemish painting, with a special emphasis on the work of Pieter Brueghel the Younger whom Coppée much admired for his treatment of humanist themes. In all, he owned nine works by the artist, a group that set the example for many later collectors of Brueghel in Belgium.