This newly discovered work by Pieter Bruegel I was first published by Josef de Coo in his 1975 article on wooden roundels (loc. cit.). Although de Coo only tentatively attributed the picture to Bruegel, the recent discovery of a signature and date by Roger van Schoute and Hélène Verougstraete - and its subsequent publication in the Burlington Magazine (loc. cit., to which article the present note is indebted) - has led to its recognition as a fully autograph work, as endorsed by its recent exhibition in the National Gallery, London. The picture's acceptance into the canon of Bruegel's known paintings makes it one of only two to remain in private hands. The other is the Haymaking formerly in the Czech National Gallery, but recently restituted to the Lobkowitz family; however, the export regulations of the Czech Republic make The Drunkard Pushed into the Pigsty the only work by Bruegel to remain accessible to the open market. Two other paintings have been claimed to be authentic but neither has been studied in recent years.
Concerning their discovery of the signature, Van Schoute and Verougstraete reported (op. cit., p. 140) that: 'To the left of the twisted vegetable peeling at the top of the trough there are traces of the artist's name - the lower part of the letter 'B' followed by 'RVEG', with the 'V' and the 'E' as a ligature (fig. a). To the right of the peeling the full date 'M.D.L.VII' can be made out (fig. b) running to the right side of the trough. The letters 'M.D.' were first noticed while the panel was being examined by infra-red reflectography with the aim of detecting underdrawing. Following this discovery, it was possible to read the rest of the inscription by using a stereomicroscope, and to photograph it at low magnifications (x10 and x16)'.
Infra-red reflectography reveals, in addition to the signature and date, some minor changes that Bruegel made to the composition whilst working up the picture. In particular, the head of the woman at the front of the picture, pushing the Drunkard, was lowered at some point in the picture's execution, presumably to prevent it from obscuring that of the hatted man directly behind her. Unusually for Northern painting at the time, Bruegel painted the picture on a walnut panel, an idiosyncracy perhaps explained by surface grooves - visible in raking light - that indicate that the panel was turned on a wheel, as in some cities guild regulations prevented the turners from working in oak (see Verougstraete and Van Schoute, Cadres et supports dans la peinture flamande aux 15e et 16e siècles, Heure-le-Romain, 1989, p. 11).
Although there are no certain records of this picture before the d'Ydewalle inventory, its composition has long been known through engravings by or after Jan Wierix (1549-1618), as well as through painted versions by Pieter Brueghel II and his circle. The popularity of Wierix's engraving (fig. c), which dates from 1568, can be judged from the number of publishers' names found on its various states: first issued by Martinus Petri, called Merten Peeters van Ghelle (b. c. 1500), versions are also recorded by C.J. Visscher and P. Goos. There is also a rectangular engraving, in reverse with the addition of a landscape background and the inscription 'P. Breughel invent: C. Visscher excudebat' (fig. d); the absence of Wierix's monogram suggests that this engraving dates from after his death in 1618.
Wierix's engraving seems to have been made directly from the original. The compositions are not identical - there are differences in the clothing, hair and faces - however, many minor details in the original are recorded with great fidelity, for example the turnips and peelings. Particularly revealing is the fact that in the painting the purse of the woman in the foreground shows an interrupted line to the right, where the artist had initially given it a fuller contour, a feature that the engraver has repeated, taking it to be a string. The main difference between the compositions is the design of the faces in the background of the engraving; this is explained by Van Schoute and Verougstraete's suggestion (loc. cit.) that those heads in the present work are of a later date, added to conform with the engraving.
A number of versions are known from the workshop of Pieter Brueghel II, including two by the artist himself. The first (fig. e), in a private collection, is signed 'BRE.EL' on the top of the trough; the second (fig. f), signed with a monogram, is in the Historisches Museum, Bamberg. Breughel's copies suggest that, like Wierix, he had seen his father's picture in the original - not only do they faithfully reproduce the colours of the present picture, which would be extremely unusual were they copies after monochrome engravings, but also the signature in the first painting is in the same position as that in the present work, whereas in Wierix's engraving it is above the lower edge. Of course, if Van Schoute and Verougstraete are correct in suggesting that the background heads in the present painting are later additions, then Pieter II must also have relied on Wierix's engraving.
It is possible that Pieter II could have seen his father's painting in the house of Gillis van Coninxloo II (1544-1606), who, according to Van Mander, was the son's uncle and master. Four paintings by Pieter I are specifically recorded in the inventory of Coninxloo's estate (see N. de Roever, 'De Coninxloo's', Oud Holland, III, 1885, pp. 33-53); in addition, there is a work described as 'Een stuck daet Varcken in't Cot moet', a title extremely close to that of the Visscher engraving ('T'Varcken moet in t'schot'). Such a possibility can, of course, be nothing more than speculative, given the absence of attribution in the inventory.
The design of the roundel reflects its original purpose as a painted plate; as such, it is an example of a tradition that was well-known in the Netherlands at the time and in which specialists, called teljoorschilders, were recorded among the members of the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke from 1570 to 1610. Approximately seventy survive from the sixteenth century, of which twenty are discussed by de Coo (loc. cit.). The present plate was probably originally one of a series: much as, for example, the Museum Mayer van den Bergh panels or, perhaps more directly, the version of the present composition by Pieter II in Bamberg, which is one of a set of four, the others depicting The arrow maker, The bread eater and The gift (figs. g, h and i respectively; the last signed 'P. BREVGHEL'). The underlying subject matters are also thought to be broadly moralising (with the exception of The arrow maker, the meaning of which is today obscure, although Dr. Klaus Ertz has suggested that it might refer to the foolishness of human division, possibly in particular the division of the Spanish Netherlands [Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere, Lingen, 2000, I, pp. 158-169]): The bread eater is thought, from the old man at the window and the broken tree sprouting anew, to be a memento mori, while The Gift refers to vanity and foolishness, the bed in the background suggesting what the woman might give for the mirror that she covets.
The meaning of the present picture is similarly moral. In the Visscher engraving ('The Pig must go into the stall') and the description of Coninxloo's inventory ('A picture in which the pig must go into the stall'), the central man is referred to directly as a Pig. Bastelaer, Marlier and others who have subsequently written about the composition, however, eschewed this reverse anthropomorphism and instead described the principal as a drunkard, although there is no clear reference to alcohol in the picture. Around the title of Visscher's engraving, however, is a quatrain that reads: 'Die haer goet als droncken Swynen Brengen door in Venus Kott Moeten nae elendich quynen Endelyck int Varckensschott [Those who, like drunken pigs, waste their time and good in the house of Venus, will in the end have to be pushed, after miserable decay, into the pigsty]'.
The combination of drunkenness, gluttony and lust is all referred to in the iconography of the picture. The pig has long been connected with excess - gastronomic, alcoholic and, by extension, sexual - in Western symbolism; the abundant use of pork in the Carnival season (pig's head, trotters and pork sausages were traditional Carnival dishes) may have contributed to the association. In the mid-fourteenth-century, the Flemish caricaturist Van Tielt depicted a pig that, as patron of the guzzlers, moves along in a procession on a litter carried by apes, whilst Cornelis Anthonisz. (c. 1499-1553?) depicted Incontinence with a pig's snout. The symbolism was not restricted to pictorial references: so, for example, a sixteenth-century refrein mentions 'een versmoordt dronckaert als een zwyn [a besotted drunkard like a swine]', whilst in the Spel van sinnen van de Hel van 't Brouwersgilde [Morality Play of the Brewers' Guild], servants of Bacchus are compared to 'ontijdige verckens [dirty pigs]' and 'droncken swijnen [drunken swine]', whilst Vondel recounts that Lucifer, lieutenant of the Almighty, changed into a monster with the marks of seven beasts, one of them being 'een vratigh gulzigh zwijn [a gluttonous greedy swine]'. In the same year in which he painted the present work, Bruegel also completed the series of the Capital Sins, which were engraved the following year by Van der Heyden and published by Hieronymus Cock. In those, the figure of Gluttony [Gula], is depicted (fig. j) as a woman drinking greedily from a jug, sitting on a pig and eating turnips of great similarity to those in the present work - turnips along with other root crops being regarded as aphrodisiacs.
The text of Visscher's quatrain may well repeat a lost inscription on the frame of the roundel itself. It may reasonably be supposed that the roundel originally possessed an integral frame - certainly the present border bears traces of marks made by a chisel-like tool, suggesting that such a frame was at some time cut away, a hypothesis strengthened by the absence of barbe to the edge of the painted surface. Verougstraete and Van Schoute note (op. cit., pp. 142-3) the existence of traces of gilding under the original paint-layer, directly on the preparatory ground, and reasonably construe from this that the missing frame was gilded, and bore inscribed on its surface the missing inscription. Such a design recurs in other examples of painted Netherlandish plates.
Although the subject of the painting is moralising, its treatment is typically sympathetic. Bruegel's oeuvre (which consists of fewer than fifty paintings, owned by half as many institutions) includes some of the best-loved images of European art: five centuries after their creation, masterpieces such as his Hunters in the Snow or Wedding Banquet (both Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum) retain an empathy with the viewer that so many later works have not only lost, but frequently never possessed. That feeling derives from Bruegel's extraordinary ability not only to depict the frailty and folly of mankind, but also to project a sympathy, pathos and, at times, humour, that sprang from the artist's own humanizing vision and awareness. In the present picture that sensibility is tangibly felt: on Bruegel's stage there is no moral superiority: the drunkard is no more ignorant or blind than the players pushing him - indeed his outward glance implies that he alone is aware of that irony - and, more pertinently, looks to the viewer, asking: 'Are you so much better yourself?'.