This is one of a group of still life garlands enclosing either religious or mythological scenes painted by Jan Brueghel I in collaboration with for the most part Hendrik van Balen. The present example relates most closely to one of the finest of all such works, the Garland of fruit and flowers with the Holy Family in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich. Datable to circa 1623, and painted in collaboration with Pieter van Avont, the Munich garland is the latest known work from the group and arguably represents the zenith of Brueghel's work in the genre.
This type of history painting encircled by a floral garland seems to have been invented by Brueghel, and may perhaps have been the result of the patronage of Cardinal Borromeo, who by 1607 had acquired a painting of a garland surrounding an image of the Virgin and Child (Milan, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana; for a fuller discussion of the development of such paintings, see D. Freedberg, 'The origins and rise of the Flemish Madonnas in flower garlands: Decoration and devotion', Münchner Jahrbuch der bildenden Kunst, 32, 1981, pp. 115-50). As the source of his massed flowers, fruits and vegetables (of a purely floral garland by Jan, Sam Segal recorded over 100 species depicted, as well as more than 10 species of insects, a spider and a snail [Flowers and Nature, The Hague, 1990, p. 181, under no. 29]), Brueghel himself wrote in a letter of 4 September 1621 that those for the Prado garland (see below) were taken from life from those in the Brussels menagerie of Archduke Ferdinand (see S. Bedoni, Jan Brueghel in Italia e il collezionismo del Seicento, Florence, 1983, p. 136).
The Milan garland, the earliest known of this group and also painted in collaboration with Van Balen, was not the only such painting in the Cardinal's collection: he owned at least one other, with staffage by Rubens (to which picture that corresponds is unknown, although it has been suggested that it is the Garland surrounding the Virgin and Child of 1621 in the Prado, Madrid). It is interesting to note that even when referring to a collaboration with an artist as illustrious as Rubens, the quality of Breughel's work was seen to be so outstanding that the Cardinal, a highly sophisticated connoisseur in his own right, wrote 'There is no point in saying anything about the enclosed image, for it is a lesser light that is outshone by all the splendours surrounding it.' (Musaeum Bibliothecae Ambrosianae, Milan, 1625, p. 18).
The connection between the garland and the central scene may today seem hard to perceive, but was explained by Cardinal Borromeo, who wrote that fruit and vegetables 'make known to us the great wisdom and exquisiteness of Divine Providence, surely their abundance and very great variety will be able to lead us to see their liberality and generous heart of this so magnanimous and so splendid a donor' (see P.M. Jones, Federico Borromeo and the Ambrosiana: Art Patronage and Reform in Seventeenth-century Milan, Cambridge, Mass., 1993, p. 86, citing a passage from the Cardinal's I tre libri delle laudi divine, Milan, 1632, p. 158). In the present picture, Brueghel reprises the great and abundant swag of flowers and fruit held aloft by putti in the Munich garland, as well as the distant landscape background. The figures of the putti, painted by Van Balen, differ slightly from those of Van Avont, for example in the right-hand of the two depicted upper left, whereas the compositions (and subjects) of the central figures are unrelated.
Klaus Ertz, in his 1979 monograph and catalogue raisonné of the artist's works, lists three other possibly autograph works whose compositions derive from the Munich garland, all painted in collaboration with Hendrik van Balen: that with Hallsborough Gallery, 1966 (Jan Brueghel der Ältere, Cologne, 1979, no. 369, fig. 394); with Hoogendijk, 1936 (ibid., no. 370); and that with Leger, 1953 (ibid., no. 371). The present work, however, is the only one to repeat the canopy-like arrangement of the garland, and also to share with the Munich garland the sophistication of composition involved in depicting the subsidiary picture within a naturalistic surround rather than a trompe l'oeil cartouche. Dr. Ertz also notes (op. cit., p. 320, fig. 393) the existence of a preparatory drawing that may represent a study for the left hand side of the garland (Antwerp, Stedelijk Prentencabinet).