Along with the various winter landscapes in the Brueghel canon, the Carnival in Antwerp is one of the most recognisable ice scenes in Flemish art. Its tremendous popularity is attested to by the large number of contemporary versions and copies, several of which are in museums (Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, fig. 1; Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado, fig. 2; and Brussels, Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts). This hitherto unknown example has claims to being the best, if not the prime version, and one of the only ones that can be attributed today with any certainty.
The composition has traditionally been associated with Denys van Alsloot (c. 1568-1625) to whom several of the versions, including this one and the one in the Prado, have formerly been attributed. The Prado picture has often been cited as the prototype by Alsloot, although, notwithstanding the slight compositional differences between it and the present work, the assured handling and sustained quality of this example would indicate its clear superiority. Certainly they are by different hands. Sabine van Sprang in her recent monograph on Alsloot rejects altogether the premise that the artist had any connection with the composition, suggesting that the idea grew from an archival reference to two winter landscapes by Alsloot that were mistakenly linked to this Carnival subject (S. van Sprang, Denijs van Alsloot, Peintre Paysagiste au service de la cour des Archducs Albert et Isabelle, Pictura Nova, Turnhout, 2014). Sebastian Vrancx has been proposed as the more likely author of the composition and the version in Brussels, which was also formerly attributed to Alsloot, is now considered closer to Vrancx. More assured than the Brussels picture, the present work is entirely consistent with Vrancx’s best work, both in the spirited figure painting and the rendering of the architecture and the tree framing the scene on the left side. This has allowed it to be securely attributed with a possible date around 1618-20.
The subject shows a large and colourful crowd of revellers, many in carnival costume, converging on the frozen moat around Antwerp’s city walls near the Kipdoorpoort. The scene was borne out of the local enthusiasm for orchestrated public festivities, which took place to different degrees throughout the year in Antwerp, the largest and most spectacular of all being the Ommegang held on Pentecost, which also provided a rich visual source for artists. Masked entertainers, dancers, musicians, and rhetoricians made up a rich array of entertainers at these events and a performance on ice by a cast from the Commedia dell’Arte forms the star attraction in this example. By Breughelian standards the festivities are relatively restrained and the attendees notable for their elegance and hauteur. People from across the whole social spectrum, rich and poor, mix happily together on the ice affirming the notion that these type of carnivals had the effect of temporarily diverting the attentions of the most disenfranchised and dissipating social tensions. These public celebrations were carefully monitored by the authorities to whom all songs and performances had to be submitted for approval. A congregation of local clerics and other dignitaries on the ramparts, who are deliberately aligned with the rather overbearing church tower behind, reflect this more sober, supervisory view of the party below. An active group of Antwerp painters were alive to the carnival tradition; elegant images of balls, nocturnal fêtes and masquerades featured in the repertoire of several artists such as Joos van Winge, Louis de Caullery, Hieronymous Francken and Frans Francken II, who all drew inspiration from Venetian themes. Many of these artists were closely affiliated with the actors who performed in public and Vrancx himself was a member of de Violieren, an official chamber of Antwerp rhetoricians which was allied to the St. Luke’s Guild.