Pieter Brueghel the Younger based this animated scene, teeming with figures, on an original composition by his father, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen). It visualises the vernacular and wit of the sixteenth-century Netherlandish people in the figurative representation of over one hundred proverbs. Proverbs and sayings had long been collected in compendia, however, interest in them reached new levels at this time. The best-known compendium was Erasmus’s Adagia, published in 1500, which explained around eight hundred proverbs and sayings from classical antiquity to biblical times.
Bruegel the Elder’s Netherlandish Proverbs, inscribed with the date ‘1559’, was created five years before his son Pieter Brueghel the Younger (who adopted an ‘h’ in his name) was born, and almost forty years before the latter painted his earliest surviving dated copy. It was one of the Elder’s earliest works and as a composition incorporating small isolated performances of proverbs across a large theatrical space it had no direct precedent. Frans Hogenberg’s circa 1558 engraving of The Blue Cloak certainly provided Bruegel with inspiration (fig. 1), as he gave the cuckolding motif centre stage in his own work, with the unfaithful wife placing the ‘blue cloak’ of deception on her gullible husband, and later made it part of the title of the work. Hogenberg’s engraving depicted many of the proverbs and sayings that Bruegel transformed and multiplied into a complex visual opus that made veiled references to the uncertainties of his time.
Although Bruegel the Elder’s Proverbs was still in Antwerp in 1668, when it was documented as part of the collection of Pieter Stevens, there is no evidence to suggest that it was still in the artist’s possession at the time of his death. While none of the surviving sources establish what happened to his workshop and all of his paintings, drawings and designs, what is evident from comparing the copies produced by the younger Brueghel and his studio is that they were based on a model other than his father’s original picture. Klaus Ertz records nine autograph versions of this composition by Brueghel the Younger (op. cit., pp. 68-75), two of which are smaller works on copper. He considers the present work to be one of the finest autograph variants, most comparable to probably the earliest surviving version in the Stedelijk Museum, Wuyts-Van Campen in Lier (ibid., no. E1), which is dated to 1607, the year around which Ertz also dates the present picture. Along with the Lier version, the present work is grouped by Ertz with two other works that are characterised by their closeness to Bruegel the Elder’s prototype: that in the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp (ibid., no. E3), and the picture offered at Sotheby’s, London, 9 April 1986, lot 22 (ibid., no. E7). Although the copies typically follow the Elder’s original with astonishing precision, none are absolutely identical to the prototype, with many showing both minor and in some instances significant differences, additions and omissions. This suggests that Brueghel the Younger had the inclination to add something of his own inventiveness.
While no preparatory drawing of the Elder’s original is known, infra-red reflectography of the panel indicates that the younger Brueghel’s compositions are in fact closer to the original’s underdrawing than to the finished painting (see Duckwitz, op. cit., pp. 58-79). Close comparison of the prototype’s underdrawing and the copies reveals many shared elements that do not appear in the original finished painting: in all of the Younger’s versions, for example, the legs of the man in the pillory are stretched out, as they are in the prototype’s underdrawing, where the man also plays his fiddle in front of a cracked brick wall, subsequently overpainted by Bruegel the Elder with a hedge. Similarly, one figure is missing from all the copies – a man kissing a ring on the tower door – and neither is he visible in the original underdrawing. This suggests that Brueghel the Younger’s versions were based on highly detailed drawings or cartoons by his father, which must have included colour instructions, since the colours in all the copies remain consistent.
Associating himself with literati such as the cartographer Abraham Ortelius and the Dutch moralist Dirck Volckertszoon Coornhert, Pieter Bruegel the Elder injected sixteenth century proverb usage with the power of Medieval theological symbolism in his Netherlandish Proverbs. Though Catholic, Bruegel identified with the moral and religious teachings of Coornhert, which centred on man’s personal relationship with God and his duty to overcome sin, which he was believed to be driven to by folly. Bruegel won the admiration of his contemporaries both for his fidelity to nature and as a disciple of Hieronymus Bosch, visually adopting both the artist’s sense of unrestrained pandemonium and satire to warn against the greed and avarice of humanity, as if extending the brawling crowds of Bosch’s The Haywain (fig. 2; c. 1512-15; Madrid, Museo del Prado) into the folly of the Proverbs. Unlike man’s central position as the lord of creation in Italian Renaissance art, he is here incidental to the plenitude of nature and the universe, to the cycle of birth and death, to growth and decay.
For a list of the proverbs depicted in this picture in the original Flemish, see G. Marlier, Pierre Brueghel le Jeune, Brussels, 1969, pp. 123-127, figs. 52 and 52bis.