This picture is a fine example of what is arguably the Brueghel dynasty’s most iconic invention and one of the most enduringly popular compositions of the Netherlandish landscape tradition. Although no fewer than 127 versions from the family’s studio and followers have survived, fewer than fifty are now believed to be autograph works by Pieter Brueghel II himself, with the remainder being largely workshop copies of varying degrees of quality (K. Ertz, op. cit., pp. 605-30, nos. E682 to A805a). Though previously regarded as a work by an anonymous contemporary, Klaus Ertz has recently had the opportunity to study the painting at first hand and recognized it as an autograph work.
Debate remains as to which member of the Brueghel family devised the prototype for this successful composition. Traditionally, the prototype has been thought to be a painting attributed to Pieter Bruegel I, signed and dated 1565, now 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 the Elder, authors as early as Groomann and Glück were doubtful of the attribution, and the question remains open. Another signed version, dated by Shipp to 1564, formerly in the A. Hassid collection in London, has also been considered to be the original by the Elder. Moreover, the invention of this popular composition could be entirely Pieter the Younger’s or alternatively that of his younger sibling Jan (for a summary of the debate, see Ertz in Breughel-Brueghel, exhibition catalogue, Essen, Antwerp and Vienna, 1997-1998, pp. 169-171). Beyond doubt is that the design of the Birdtrap was inspired, to a great degree, by Pieter the Elder’s celebrated masterpiece Hunters in the Snow of 1565, belonging of the artist’s famous cycle of the Seasons (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; the others: Lobkowicz Palace, Prague; and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
Whatever the prototype, the distinctive beauty of the composition remains unchallenged. After the Vienna picture, the view is 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 Pede-Ste-Anne in Brabant, the silhouette in the background being that of Antwerp) and one of the seminal examples of the theme of the winter landscape. In contrast to the Elder’s Hunters in the Snow, where the figures walk through a rather somber, still countryside, where the air is clear and biting cold, in Pieter the Younger’s Birdtrap, the figures are enjoying the pleasures of winter in a more welcoming atmosphere.
The painting indeed offers a vivid evocation of the various delights of wintertime: in the landscape blanketed in snow, a merry band of country folk are skating, curling, playing skittles and hockey on a frozen river. The cold winter air, conveyed with remarkable accuracy by the artist’s muted palette, mainly made up of blues and earthy tonalities, is intelligently broken up through the bright red frocks worn by some of the figures, enlivening the whole picture. Yet the most characteristic feature of the composition is the almost graphic, intricate network of entwined bare branches set against the snow or the light winter sky. It creates a lace-like, almost abstract pattern of the utmost decorative effect.
But beneath the seemingly anecdotal, light-hearted subject lies a moral commentary on the precariousness of life: below one of Pieter Bruegel I’s engravings, Winter – Ice skating before St. George’s Gate, Antwerp, is the inscription Lubricitas Vitae Humanae. La Lubricité de la vie humaine. Die Slibberachtigheyt van’s Menschen Leven, that is the ‘Slipperiness [or fragility] of human life’ was added. This label invests the Birdtrap with new meaning: the picture emphasizes the obliviousness of the birds towards the threat of the trap, which, in turn, is mirrored by the carefree play of the skaters upon the flimsy ice. Likewise, the fishing hole in the center of the frozen river, waiting for the unwary skater, and the figures of the two children running heedlessly towards their parents across the ice despite the latter’s warning cries, function as a reminder of the dangers that lurk beneath the innocent pleasures of the Flemish winter countryside. Brueghel delivers with this fine work a message of lasting poignancy about the uncertainty and fickleness of existence.
A copy of the certificate from Dr. Klaus Ertz is available upon request.