It was long thought that The Flemish Proverbs illustrated actual sayings from Flemish folk culture and Pieter Bruegel the Elder's treatment of the subject, painted as it is in his peasant genre idiom, supports that association. However, a recent study has linked the theme to the contemporary study of classical literature (Margaret Sullivan, 'Bruegel's Proverbs: Art and Audience in the Northern Renaissance', The Art Bulletin, 1991, LXXIII, no. 3). Collections of proverbs such as Erasmus' Adages (1533) and Marco Girolamo Vida's De arte poetica (1534) were not simply manuals of acceptable behavior, but ancient proverbs formulated in the vernacular in order to make the wisdom of the ancients accessible to a wide audience. For Erasmus, proverbs contained 'almost all the philosophy of the Ancients' and expressed the basic principles upon which one should base one's life. While proverbs themselves were intended for those not classically educated, Pieter the Elder's painting of them would have been owned by royalty or by one of a number of wealthy and erudite contemporary collectors. Pieter the Younger's copies reached a wider market. Still, The Flemish Proverbs, with their village setting and bawdy humour, would never have been seen by those who are meant to utter such home grown truths - it is philosophy in the vernacular, highbrow references masquerading as folk culture.
There are more than sixty known roundels of this type produced by Pieter the Younger and his studio, seventeen of which are signed and six of which are dated. They depict thirty different proverbs and exhibit a range of workshop assistance. The vigorous underdrawing evident in each of these works, together with the fluent way in which the paint is applied, suggests that they are by the hand of Pieter the Younger himself. Certain hallmarks of the studio works, such as a tendency to outline facial features with black or dark brown lines, are not evident. Pieter the Younger made an effort to imitate his father's loose brushwork and fluid painting style and his best works are subtle and beautiful interpretations of the original compositions.
Recent research into Pieter the Younger's oeuvre has raised many questions and generated a number of hypotheses regarding his studio production. The issue of whether he saw, or even worked from, his father's original paintings is foremost among these questions as his copies were remarkably faithful, even with respect to his palette and use of local colour. Access to his father's original works was not always possible and it seems likely that he worked from detailed drawings made by his father in preparation for his own paintings. These drawings would have been highly finished compositional studies with annotations indicating the type of brushstroke and colours to be used. Pieter the Younger would then have produced drawings after his father's original sketches from which his pupils could work. His copies often feature certain details evident only in the underdrawing of Pieter the Elder's original paintings.
The subject of the present painting, of which Klaus Ertz in his catalogue raisonné of Brueghel's works lists only three versions, relates to a Flemish phrase 'De Advocaat die het kromme reght kan maaken, die magh draagen Root Scharlaaken [The lawyer that can make an angle straight may wear the red robe]'. The artist's depiction of the lawyer literally making an angle straight in a blacksmith's forge is a form of reductio ad absurdum, and the image is deliberately unflaterring. Brueghel's somewhat cynical view of the abilities and practices of the legal profession are found elswehere in his work - the Village Lawyer composition being the most noticeable - and reflected a widespread view that is no less universal today.