This luminous and intricately-rendered landscape is characteristic of the brilliant technical mastery achieved in gouache painting by Lucas van Valckenborch during his career, lavished with the care and detail for which he was most celebrated. The use of gouache (watercolor, mixed with gum arabic) is found relatively rarely in Valckenborch’s extant work, which was used frequently earlier in the sixteenth century by artists like Albrecht Dürer, whose remarkable life studies of plants and animals showcased the extraordinary detail and accuracy that could be achieved, as well as Valckenborch’s contemporaries. Indeed, gouache was a particular speciality of painters in Mechelen, the city where Valckenborch is first recorded as a painter from 1560. There, artists like Hans Bol (1534-1593) made extensive use of the medium to produce carefully rendered landscapes in bright, vivid colors with minute detail.
Dated 1577, this painting was created during Valckenborch’s first year working in Brussels for the Archduke Matthias of Austria (1557-1619), Governor of the Spanish Netherlands and later Holy Roman Emperor from 1612. It shows the direct influence of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, whose work Valckenborch would have been able to study closely while resident in Antwerp in the mid-1570s. The ‘plateau’ composition of the landscape, in which the foreground figures are abruptly separated from the panoramic vista by a precipitous drop, represents an important development in the genre. It is a technique clearly gleaned from Bruegel and other exponents of the Weltlandschaft (world landscape) tradition in the Netherlands, as illustrated by such works as the Soldiers at rest (fig. 1) from The Large Landscapes print series, which was engraved in Antwerp after a design by Bruegel circa 1555-56. Valckenborch’s use of the central hillock, topped by verdant trees with tangled exposed roots, is closely comparable with the engraving and suggests that the artist was clearly aware of the series or the drawings on which they were based. Yet despite these compositional borrowings, this painting remains characteristically Valckenborch’s own, with the transition of the split perspective resolved by masterfully subtle gradations of color: from the browns of the earth and soil that transition into the verdant greens, and deep aquamarine mountains that blend into the sky, the artist draws the eye deeper into the composition, creating the illusion of depth and distance in the two-dimensional plane through modulations of color and an orthogonal perspective.
The scene depicts a soldier (distinguished by his armor and, by implication, the charging cavalry men in the background), drawing the attention of his comrades to the approach of a peasant family laden with their possessions, who flee the destruction in the landscape beyond by ascending the steep hill at the right of the picture. Valckenborch’s soldiers are theatrically characterized, with exaggerated physiognomies and leering expressions that recall Bruegelian models like those found in The Attack of 1567 (fig. 2; Stockholm University Art Collections, Stockholm). At the head of the advancing party is a figure in a red jerkin, wearing a large cooking pot on his head, who throws up his hands in surprise and horror at coming headlong into the party of soldiers. Depictions of looting soldiers became widely disseminated during the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648), illustrating the uncontrolled dissipations of the combatants. Troops regularly looted towns, leaving widespread economic, agricultural and human chaos in their wake. The devastating impact that the wars had on the countryside is here, however, somewhat offset by the verdant landscape and calm sky.
Thomas Jefferson Bryan (fig. 3), an early owner of this painting, was born at Spring Hill, Philadelphia, in 1800 to Guy Bryan and Martha Matlock. He graduated from Harvard University in 1823 with a degree in Law, but his inheritance allowed for him to avoid practicing his profession, and he instead traveled the world forming a prized art collection. This collection, initially known as the Bryan Gallery of Christian Art, was first displayed in a spacious room in a house on the corner of Broadway and 13th Street in New York, until Bryan deposited it in the Cooper Union, before finally deeding the entire collection to the New-York Historical Society in 1867, which he catalogued, arranged and added to on occasion until his death in 1870 (Catalogue of the Gallery of Art of The New York Historical Society, New York, 1915, p. 56).