The composition of Pieter Breughel the Younger's autumn landscape is closely based upon a lost drawing by Hans Bol (1534-1593). Bol was both a draftsman and painter, and an accomplished watercolorist (waterschilderen). Many of his drawings were made into prints by engravers such as Hieronymous Cock and Phillip Galle, and in 1570, a year after the death of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hieronymus Cock published a series of four engravings depicting The Four Seasons. These had been commissioned by the elder Bruegel, and were to be after compositions on which he was working. The drawing for Spring, in the Albertina, is dated 1565, that for Summer 1568. However, Bruegel the Elder was unable to complete all four compositions before his death, and Cock turned to Hans Bol to supply Autumn and Winter in time to publish his engravings in 1570. Neither of Bol's drawings survives.
Both Pieter Breughel the Younger and Abel Grimmer used the series as the basis for paintings, Grimmer generally remaining more rigorously faithful to the original drawing/engraving, and the present picture shows some of the younger Breughel's adaptations. For example, Cock and Grimmer depict another slaughtered animal on the left foreground of the composition, and Breughel reverses the position of the slaughterer and woman holding a large cooking pan. Cock and Grimmer also introduce two small children in front of the well, and Breughel opens up the background landscape to include a river estuary (see K. Ertz, in the catalogue of the exhibition, Pieter Breughel der Jüngere - Jan Brueghel der Ältere. Flämische Malerei um 1600. Tradition und Fortschritt, Villa Hügel, Essen, Germany; Kunsthistorsiches Museum, Vienna; and Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, August 1997 - July 1998, pp. 376-8 (the Cock engraving and painted versions of the composition by Abel Grimmer and Pieter Brueghel the Younger all illustrated; see fig. 1 in this catalogue for the engraving).
The famous Brueghel dynasty of painters begins with Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who is recognized as one of the greatest artists in sixteenth century northern Europe. His son, Pieter Breughel the Younger is known primarily as a copyist of his father, his work often providing the only evidence of lost compositions by the elder Bruegel. His brother, Jan Breughel the Elder or Velvet Breughel became one of the most important Flemish artist's of the first half of the seventeenth century, and his work was collected in many of the Royal European courts. The sons of both Pieter the Younger and Jan the Elder were successful artists in their own right.
The iconography of the Four Seasons can be traced back to the calendar illustration for Medieval Books of Hours, such as the Limbourg brothers' Très Riches Heures illustrated for the Duc de Berry, circa 1411-6. In these, Saint's Days and other religious feasts were listed by month, and on the facing page an artist would paint a specific activity connected with that time of year. Depictions of the Twelve Months and the Seasons continued into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when their greatest exponent became Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who established this genre as an independent category of painting. Pieter Breughel the Younger's paintings are conceived very much in the tradition of his father and represent an important transition between sixteenth and seventeenth century northern art.
The popularity of Breughel's Four Seasons is attested to by the many version that are known. However, a complete set by the artist has not appeared at auction since one sold at Sotheby's, London, 12 July, 1972, lot 16 (£85,000=$216,000). Of the paintings in that series, Spring, Summer and Winter were signed, but not Autumn (as is the case with the present work). Since then, individual panels have surfaced at auction, including, amongst others, a version of Autumn sold at Sotheby's, London, 12 December, 1973, lot 47 (£26,000=$60,000) and another near identical version sold at Sotheby's New York, 21 January, 1982, lot 17 ($80,000). Two from the series, including Autumn, were sold at Christie's, New York, 5 June 1985, lot 161 ($110,000). Most recently, a version of Winter was sold at Christie's, New York, 24 January, 2003, lot 48 ($1,400,000).