This is an early work by Roelandt Savery probably painted when he was working in Prague at the court of Rudolf II. The artist travelled to Bohemia after the death of his elder brother and teacher Jacob Savery in 1603. He provided the court with paintings of flowers, animals, and alpine or wooded scenery, working from a large number of drawings made in and around Prague and on occasional excursions to the Tyrol. He returned to Amsterdam in 1613, but was recorded in Prague again briefly in 1615.
Although obscured by layers of old, discoloured varnish, this painting is well preserved and revelatory of Savery’s technical brio and his command of light and composition. The scene is one of the most densely populated in Savery’s oeuvre containing 45 head of cattle with numerous figures, horses and other animals who have all converged at a livestock market beside a ramshackle village. To dramatic effect, Savery juxtaposes a darkened foreground with a middle ground that is bathed in sunlight, a bridge connecting the two realms. A darkened, heavy sky with sunlight bursting through heightens the atmosphere with the sense of an impending storm. The setting was strongly influenced by Savery’s new Bohemian surroundings. He probably relied on a drawing for the dilapidated building and tower (it recurs in another painting dated 1606; see K.J. Müllenmeister, Neues und Ergänzungen zum Oeuvreverzeichnis, Freren, 1988, p. 38, no. 25A, illustrated), and Müllenmeister has noted that some of the background elements recur in another painting of the same theme, dated 1607 (op. cit., no. 12, illustrated). Savery is known to have drawn on a repertory of peasant studies made around the Prague markets for his figural compositions. His observations of Bohemian characters in unfamiliar costumes gave him rich artistic licence and the silhouetted rider in this picture, dressed in a hat and cloak, is a particularly striking example. Müllenmeister proposed a date of circa 1616 for this work, although the clear stylistic and formal connections made with his output of 1606/1607, and the pervading Bohemian character of the work place it in much more plausibly in those years.