This composition is unusual in Pieter II's oeuvre in that it is neither a direct copy of one of his father's compositions nor an adaptation of a Bruegel-like composition by one of his father's contemporaries - such as Martin van Cleve - or close followers. Indeed the Payment of Tithes is noticeably different from Pieter I's compositional, figural and facial types, and its derivation has therefore been the subject of much discussion. Georges Marlier's early death sadly prevented his discussing it in his monograph on the artist, and it was his posthumous editor, Jacqueline Folie, who first tackled the question in print in the catalogue of the 1993 Bonnefanten Museum exhibition Pieter Brueghel de Jonge.
Folie proposed on the basis of visual clues that the lost prototype was French. One obvious clue was the fact that the calendar on the wall is written in French, although she conceded that the implication of this was undermined by the fact that French was at the time the language of the legal profession in the Netherlands; in addition, however, she noted that the peasants' short beards and close-cropped hair, as well as their costumes, were of a type not seen at the time in the Southern Netherlands (see O. Rogeau, 'Tu vas parler, Brueghel!', Le Vif. L'Express, 14 June 2002, pp. 32-3). Folie's proposal was supported by Ingeborg Krueger ('".. nimbt Gelt, Buter, Hüner, Endten ..." Zu Darstellungen des Bauernadvocaten von Pieter Brueghel d.J. und anderen', Das Rheinische Landesmuseum Bonn, Berichte aus der Arbeit des Museums, 3, 1995, 3, pp. 78-85), whilst Klaus Ertz, in his 2000 catalogue raisonné of Brueghel's work hypothesized that the original might be a lost painting by the French artist Nicolas Baullery (1560-1630).
The various versions of Brueghel's Payment of Tithes paintings can be divided into two main groups, regardless of size: those with plaited straw ropes on the back wall and under the central window, and those with a dark cloth there instead; the present painting is of the former type. An analysis of the two categories shows that, amongst dated versions, the compositional variant with plaited straw and the man on the far left having a grey/blue sleeve appears only in works dated 1615-17; conversely that with a dark cloth and the man having a red sleeve appears from 1618-26 with only two exceptions. One might therefore hypothesize that Brueghel decided for some reason to change his composition and colour scheme in circa 1618. The type of the signature (P. BREVGHEL rather than P. BRVEGHEL) in the present painting suggests that it dates from in or after 1616 (see K. Ertz, catalogue of the exhibition Breughel-Brueghel. Pieter Breughel le Jeune (1564-1637/8) - Jan Brueghel l'Ancien (1568-1625), Lingen, 1998, p. 19); combined with the compositional evidence, one can therefore suggest a date for the painting of 1616-8.
Recent studies of the question of workshop participation in Brueghel's oeuvre have opened up wide questions as to the nature of Brueghel attributions (see, for example, P. van den Brink, ed., catalogue of the exhibition, Brueghel Enterprises, Bonnefanten Museum, Maastricht, 2001). The present painting, however, is of particularly high quality within Brueghel's depictions of the subject (it was described by Ertz, 2000, loc. cit., as 'allerbester Qualität'). Christina Currie of the Institut Royal du Patrimoine Artistique, Brussels, in a recent analysis (private communication, March 2005) of the underdrawing and paint layer in this picture has noted that their direct similarities with those in the versions in the Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent, and the Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht, show a common authorship for all three versions that she confirms as being that of Pieter Brueghel II (cf. C. Currie, Technical Study of Paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Younger in Belgian Public Collections, PhD. diss., Université de Liège, 2003; see also fig.1 and fig. 2, showing infra-red reflectography of the present picture).
We are grateful to Dr. Christina Currie for her assistance in the cataloguing of this lot; Dr. Currie will publish the picture in the forthcoming Scientia Artis publication of her research on the work of Pieter Brueghel II. The painting will also be included in a forthcoming doctoral thesis by Pascale Fraiture, La dendrochronologie appliquée aux peintures sur panneaux flamands du 15e au 17e siècle.