Dr. Klaus Ertz records twelve autograph versions of this subject by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, of which all but two are signed and five are signed and dated. The five dated versions are of especially high quality, and belong to the period 1599-1607, which places them among the artist’s earliest known dated works: the picture of 1599 is in Florence (Galleria degli Uffizi); one dated 1602 is at Nostell Priory (West Yorkshire), acquired by The National Trust in 2011; one of 1603 is in Antwerp (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten); one of 1606, formerly in Halle (Staatliche Galerie Moitzburg), was destroyed in the Second World War. The version dated 1607 was sold recently in these Rooms (Christie’s, London, 8 July 2014, lot 13, £5,514,500).
Pieter Brueghel the Younger seems to have attached particular importance to the subject of The Road to Calvary early in his career. One of the reasons he may have invested so much of his artistic energy in the subject was doubtless the fame of his father’s masterful treatment of the same subject, painted in 1564 (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum), and itself deriving from a lost work by Jan van Eyck. Unlike other subjects, for which Pieter the Younger followed Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s prototype very closely, in The Road to Calvary Pieter the Younger made substantial changes both to the organisation of the scene, and to its iconographic connotations. Most importantly, in Bruegel the Elder’s work, the figure of Christ, although central, is reduced to an almost incidental detail in the crowd, for which the viewer has to search. By contrast, Brueghel the Younger moved the figure of Christ into the foreground and made Him not only larger but more central to the design. In Pieter the Elder’s work, the left background of composition is dominated by a rocky crag with a windmill at its summit, while all of Pieter the Younger’s versions replace this with an expansive vista of the nearby city – Jerusalem – from which the procession emerges.
This work occupies an intriguing position in the corpus of known versions of The Road to Calvary. Dendrochronological analysis has shown that the youngest datable board in the panel is from a tree that was certainly still growing in 1596, and suggests that the panel was used between circa 1604 and circa 1636. Dr. Ian Tyers has identified the traces of a Antwerp brand on the verso of the panel, which indicates a terminus post quem of 1617, the year in which the regulations of the Antwerp Joiner’s Guild stipulated that no panel-maker should allow that ‘any joined panel, large or small, should leave their house before they have it checked and branded by the dean of the Guild’. (Brands dating as early as 1612 have been identified, but these are seen as exceptions; see J. Wadum, ‘The Antwerp Brand on Paintings on Panel’, in E. Hermens et al., eds., Looking through paintings: The study of painting techniques and materials in support of art historical research, Leids Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek, XI,2007, p. 181). Dr. Ertz notes that this work must derive from ‘Type 2’ of the composition, which he defines by the presence of the large rock in the foreground at the extreme right, which ‘Type 1’ (the Uffizi picture) lacks. The accurate transmission of this and other details suggests that the author of this work was close to the Brueghel family workshop, who may have had access to an original cartoon (the width of the present panel corresponds to that of the autograph versions). However, the handling is quite different from that of Pieter Brueghel the Younger and the creative initiative which is indicated by numerous small changes, and the vivacity expressed in the facial types, suggests a talented and independent artist. The work is executed with the use of high quality pigments – for example, the blues used for the draperies of Christ and of Saint John the Evangelist. The painterly idiosyncrasies of the brushwork may indicate a greater proximity to the technique of Jan Brueghel the Elder, Pieter Brueghel’s younger brother.
We are grateful to Dr. Ian Tyers for his views on the dating and structure of the panel. This lot is sold with a copy of the dendrochronological report by Dr. Tyers, dated October 2015.