This is an example of one of the most popular of Pieter Brueghel II's compositions. In the region of forty versions are known, all showing differences in the background, of which eighteen are accepted as autograph by Klaus Ertz (see op. cit, pp. 916-8, nos. 1296-313). Dr. Ertz lists the present picture without a full attribution (loc. cit., as A[abzuschrelben]) on the basis of a 1946 image in Apollo. Present understanding of the nature of the Brueghel studio suggests that Pieter II may well have had an involvement in elements of the present picture, which would then have been completed by studio assistance.
It was traditionally believed that the theme and composition were of Brueghel's own invention, there being no evidence of any such work in his father's oeuvre. More recently, however, Ertz (ibid., pp. 883-5) has demonstrated that it is instead indebted to a variety of sources. The general theme of the Return from the kermesse is evident as early as Pieter Aertsen, who painted the subject in a work of circa 1550 (Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique), whilst the lovers in the field evident in some other depictions were represented in a painting of circa 1535 by Jan van Amstel (Brunswick, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum).
The specifics of the composition, however, derive from three different sources. The four figures - two men, a woman and a child - walking in a line derive from the group in the lower left corner of the Village festival with a theatrical show (Amsterdam, Theatermuseum) by Peeter Baltens (c. 1526/8-before 1584); in the same work, in the lower right, are a group of men taking their leave from each other, a motif that recurs in the lower left of the present picture. Their particular poses and costumes, however, are taken more directly from a drawing by Marten van Cleve (Florence, Uffizi; fig. 1) that forms the basis for the majority of Brueghel's foreground composition, including the aforementioned group, the bagpiper and three of the sets of couples behind him as well as the wagon coming up the hill. The last element, the couple with the woman urinating in the lower right, derives from an engraving of The village kermesse by Pieter van der Borcht (active 1552-c. 1600) of before 1559.