This expansive and broadly-painted landscape hosts an array of figures: a train of horse-drawn carriages at the right, several gentlemen with hunting dogs in the middle of the composition, and a hermit saint tucked into the shadows at the far left. A man runs between the two groups, perhaps carrying a message from one to the other about the nature of the road ahead, directions from one place to another, or the not uncommon occurrence of roadside bandits in the area.
Seventeenth-century Netherlandish landscapes often center on conversations, between horsemen and herdsmen, travelers and locals, or exotic figures and pastoral maidens. While the content of these exchanges will never be known, the fact that they take place so often within this genre is significant. One function they seem to serve is to distinguish between the status of the rider and that of the travelers he encounters in the landscape. The way one moved through the landscape in the seventeenth century said as much about one's status as perhaps any other factor, and the gentlemen on horseback and the people in carriages on the right belong at opposite ends of the spectrum. Riding was primarily for the upper classes and hunting was the exclusive preserve of the aristocracy. Many newly wealthy families spent significant amounts of time and money trying to attain the privilege. The patron or buyer of this painting would almost certainly have belonged to the Flemish elite, and a scene of gentlemen surveying the countryside would either confirm his privileged position as an aristocrat and landowner or appeal to his aspiration to join that class.
The hermit saints at the far left are an interesting addition to this landscape. Hermit saints usually signal solitude and distance from society but, in this case, the distance is notably minimal. De Momper may have included the vignette not as an iconographic counterpoint to the riders and travelers at the right but to indicate the expansiveness of the landscape - that it encompasses everything from the most traveled roads to the most isolated forests.
De Momper made a career of producing extensive landscapes such as this, and his description of leaves and distant trees with unblended touches of the end of the brush is instantly recognizable. Sixty percent of de Momper's works were collaborative and he worked with up to fourteen different artists during the course of his career, among them Hendrick van Balen, Tobias Verhaecht, Pieter Snayers, Ambrosius and Frans Francken, Sebastiaen Vrancx, David Teniers II and Jacob Jordaens. Gallery paintings indicate that de Momper's landscapes were generally hung high on the wall above other paintings or as overdoors. They seem to have served a primarily decorative function, and some were conceived as series for a specific location - an inventory of 1699 describes a cycle of seven paintings, all of the same size and proportioned to fit a particular room (K. Ertz, Jan Brueghel der Ältere, 1979, pp. 472-3).
Peasants in wagons and pilgrim hermits in an extensive river landscape was most likely painted between 1600 and 1610 and is characteristic of de Momper's works from this period. The foliage in the middleground, for example, is more distinctly articulated than in his later works; individual trees are more rounded in form and described with smaller, tighter touches of the brush. The broadly painted foreground, built up in the lighter areas from brushy passages of underpaint, is an example of de Momper's technique at its finest.