This superbly preserved painting is one of the finest examples of one of the most enduringly popular compositions of the Netherlandish landscape tradition: one of the most familiar of all the works of the Brueghel family, and known in more than 120 versions by the latters' studio and followers. It has traditionally been thought that the prototype for the composition is a painting by Pieter II's father, Pieter Bruegel I, signed and dated 1565, in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels. That view is not, however, beyond dispute: although Friedländer considered it to be an autograph work by Pieter I, authors as early as Groomann and Glück were doubtful of the attribution, and the question remains open. As noted in the recent exhibition, Brueghel Enterprises (Maastricht, Bonnefanten Museum and Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, 2002), two other hypotheses have been put forward: that the putative original by Pieter I is that formerly in the A. Hassid Collection, London; and that neither work is the original, the Brussels painting being a studio production painted with only the assistance of Pieter I, whose prime version remains undiscovered. That exhibition did not mention, however, the convincing theory propounded by Klaus Ertz in his recent monograph on Pieter Brueghel II (op. cit., p. 576) that the prototype may instead be a lost work by Jan Brueghel I inspired by his father's famous Hunters in the Snow of 1565 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), to the middle ground of which the present composition clearly relates.
Whatever the prototype the distinctive beauty of the composition remains unchallenged. After the Vienna picture, the view represents one of the earliest pure representations of the Netherlandish landscape (in the catalogue of the exhibition le siècle de Brueghel, Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, 27 September-24 November 1963, p. 69, George Marlier identified the village depicted as Pède-Ste-Anne in Brabant, the silhouette in the backgroung being that of Antwerp) and one of the seminal examples of the theme of the winter landscape. Indeed, within that genre, it is perhaps the most expressive of all such compositions due to the introduction of the unusual bird trap theme above the view of the villagers at play on the ice; Ertz, loc. cit., describes the present theme as a simple, genre-like landscape; however, this to a degree underestimates the inventiveness and originality displayed. The theme of the winter landscape, and in particular that of skaters on ice, has often been suggested to represent the precariousness of life: indeed such a topic is even inscribed, on an engraving after Pieter I depicting A winter landscape with skaters on the ice before the Saint George Gate at Antwerp: 'Lubricitas Vitae Humanae. La Lubricité de la vie humaine. Die Slibberachtigheyt van's Menschen Leven.' Similar underlying lessons are well documented in the oeuvre of Pieter I but are rarely translated into his son's work. The Bird Trap, however, is given an aspect of his lasting poignancy - over and above the extraordinarily atmospheric landscape depiction - by the addition of its synonymous theme: the obliviousness of the birds towards the threat of the trap mirrored by the carefree play of the skaters upon the fragile ice. It is perhaps a mark of Brueghel's emphathy with his subject that the subtle motif is absent in so many adaptions by his followers: for example, the Winter landscape by Abel Grimmer in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels.
A similar composition by Pieter Brueghel II of the Birtrap was sold in these rooms, London, 12 December 2001, lot 11.