This picture is one of a set of three which depicted the most popular winter festivals in the Netherlands: The Feast of St Martin (private collection) The Procession of the Lame Men (whereabouts unknown) and The Twelfth Night (the present work).
The set was based on copies (in this case unfinished) after prototypes by Martin van Cleve, a near contemporary of Pieter Bruegel I, which Rubens thoroughly reworked and brought to life. They represent an important aspect of Rubens' art: his appreciation of native tradition and the unallayed low-life of the Netherlands. This is otherwise demonstrated by his admiration for the work of Pieter Bruegel I, whose art celebrated contemporary 'peasant' life, and by such masterpieces as his own Kermesse in the Louvre.
An added interest lies in the fact that Rubens may himself have owned the set, and, if he did so (albeit briefly), that it was then in the collection of his brother-in-law, Arnold Lunden, who owned an important collection of some thirty works by the master including The Farm at Laeken (The Royal Collection, Buckingham Palace) and one of his most famous portraits, that of Susanna Lunden (?) the so called 'Chapeau de Paille' (The National Gallery, London).
Individual items in the set were not as highly valued as these two masterpieces, but it is unlikely that Lunden would have acquired them unless he had recognised that they represented an important aspect not only of Rubens' affections and vision, but also of his working practices. Rubens not only made copies of paintings by predecessors that he admired, but he also delighted in retouching, particularly drawings by other masters. There are not so many examples of his doing this with paintings, but a notable example is his re-working of a copy after part of Mantegna's Triumph of Caesar, to form the right hand section of his Roman Triumph (The National Gallery, London). Other examples are most notably The Feast of St Martin and the present work, itself a testimony to its importance.
First recognised by Vlieghe from reproductions in the 1924 sale catalogue as likely to be identical with the work in the Lunden inventory, he subsequently published it after he had the chance to study the original. Viewers should not expect to admire here the idealised vision of the classical past or of heroic allegory that typifies much of Rubens' work, but rather his commitment to the tradition of indigenous Netherlandish art as exemplifed in the art of
Pieter Bruegel I.
Both Vlieghe and the other Rubens expert to have written on the work, Kristin Belkin, have described in detail the ubiquitous extent and subtlety of Rubens' exuberant re-working of the copy that he chose to work on. Belkin described how Rubens 'emphasized the musculature of the most prominent figures, the 'king' and the dancer on the left...tiny highlights on eyes and teeth can be observed throughout...and flames have been added to the sparkling fire....Most interesting...is the transformation he undertook on the mother...he changed her brown jacket to a white blouse...at the same time unbuttoning it to reveal one breast...' (exhibition catalogue, A House of Art, Rubens as a Collector, 2004, p. 231). She pointed out that the men in the background are by Rubens (following Van Cleve) and that the entire background was thoroughly reworked including the village landscape: Rubens' only extant, winter landscape.
Rubens' alloted time for the task may not have been great, but his assistants in the studio, perhaps assembled round him as he worked, would have witnessed a rapid summation of their master's genius as he created, edited and brought to life an incomplete, lifeless copy. It is generally agreed that this took place probably in the first half of the 1630s, after Rubens' execution of the Kermesse in the Louvre.
He was simultaneously collecting the work of Adriaen Brouwer, the most gifted, contemporary exponent of low life genre. Jacob Jordaens' series of The Twelfth Night, which many believe encapsulates with Baroque exuberance the artist's Flemish antecedents, is dated from the 1630s. It is quite possible that Rubens' engagement with Netherlandish art of the past, in the form of a partially unfinished copy which he transformed, inspired Jordaens to embark on one of his greatest themes, that in turn served as inspiration to the later scenes of domestic hilarity by the Dutchman Jan Steen.
For a discussion of the festival of Twelfth Night, see the note to lot 22.