The Good Shepherd is one of only two accepted versions of this subject by Pieter Brueghel the Younger. It was painted after a lost original by his father, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and was most likely intended as a pendant to The Bad Shepherd, in which the shepherd runs from his flock as the wolf attacks.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted other parables that have survived, such as The Parable of the Sower (Timken Museum of Art, San Diego) and The Parable of the Blind leading the Blind (Museo di Capodimonte, Naples). They are all biblical in origin, based on the teachings of Christ, and the parable of the good shepherd is told in the book of John (10: 1-30). The idea of the Messiah as a shepherd protecting his flock is familiar from both the Old and New Testaments and, according to John, Jesus described himself as the good shepherd: 'I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd gives his life for the sheep. But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep, and flees: and the wolf catches them, and scatters the sheep.' The ideals of loyalty and self-sacrifice conveyed by the parable are epitomized by Brueghel's shepherd, who is brave even in death. Subjects such as the good and bad shepherd were part of a larger strain of didacticism in Pieter the Elder's oeuvre, also expressed in the form of folk wisdom in paintings such as Netherlandish Proverbs (Staatliche Museen, Berlin) and The Nest Robber (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).
Confusion has long surrounded discussions of The Good Shepherd in scholarly literature. Klaus Ertz lists two versions of the subject in his monograph on Pieter Brueghel the Younger, both in Brussels - one in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique and another in the Kronacker Collection (Ertz, 1988, p. 229). He lists the present painting in the provenance of the Musées des Beaux-Arts version, arguing that the painting that was once in the Pollack collection ended up in the Brussels Museum as a gift from the Heulens-Van der Mieren family in 1988. Among his arguments are the similarity of the paintings' dimensions and the fact that both works seem to have been signed. In fact, there are three known versions of The Good Shepherd, two by Pieter the Younger, the Musée des Beaux-Arts version and the present painting, and one copy after it in the Kronacker collection. Much of the confusion has been caused by the fact that the location of the present painting had been unknown since the end of the war. It was looted from the Pollack collection in Vienna in 1942 and was taken without compensation from a forced auction (Dorotheum, Vienna, listed at 24,000 Reichsmarks) by Reichstatthalter Baldur von Schirach. It subsequently hung in his official residence on the Hohe Warte overlooking the city. The Good Shepherd was listed in the Art Loss Register as having been destroyed but was recently recovered by the current owners.
Pieter Brueghel the Younger's oeuvre revolved around the world of Flemish peasants and village scenes created by his father, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (b. 1525), and evoked in any number of literary and visual forms ever since. Pieter the Younger spent his life producing copies and versions of his father's paintings, in great demand throughout Europe almost immediately upon the artist's death in 1569. While so-called 'Bruegelmania' peaked at around 1600, Pieter the Elder's paintings and prints continued to have a dramatic impact on Netherlandish art throughout the seventeenth-century. As did Quinten Metsys (1465/6-1530), Bruegel seems to have become an Antwerp hero of sorts, a figure that defined in some fundamental way not only the genius of Flemish art but also the city's identity and regional pride in the face of hardship. Pieter the Younger produced multiple copies of at least half of his father's known works, providing paintings for a thriving market and playing a key role in the dissemination of his father's influence.
Pieter Brueghel the Younger was born in Antwerp around 1564, the eldest son in the Brueghel family. He would have been around five years old when Pieter the Elder died in 1569 and may have received training from his maternal grandmother, Mayken Verhulst, an artist in her own right and wife of the Antwerp history painter Pieter Cocke van Aelst (1502-50). It has also been suggested that he received training from the landscape painter Gillis van Coninxloo. Pieter the Younger was enrolled as an independent master in the records of Antwerp's Guild of St. Luke for the year 1584-5. Nine painters are listed as his pupils between 1588 and 1626, among them the still life and animal painter Frans Snyders. Brueghel married Elizabeth Goddelet on 5 November 1588 and their eldest son, Pieter III, also became a painter. The exact date of Pieter the Younger's death is not known but his name appeared on the Guild's list of death duties for 1637-8, indicating that he died at the age of 73 or 74.