Known for his resplendent landscape paintings, Jan Breughel I often painted views of vast mountainous expanses. Yet he also produced another group of landscapes that depict heavily wooded glades capturing the verdant density, and even mystery, of the forest. Although inhabited by humans and animals, scenes like the present one contain dark corners, little open sky and no outlet for the eye to penetrate beyond the thick trees. While Gillis van Coninxloo III (1544-1607) has traditionally been credited with originating this type of forest scene, Jan Breughel in fact experimented with such works before Coninxloo's first dated wooded landscape of 1598 (see Ertz 1979, op. cit., p. 192).
Early in his career, Jan painted a number of these pictures (see Ertz 2008, op. cit., nos. 74-80, 82-84,86,93,95 and Ruby, op. cit., p. 476, fig. 11). Born in Brussels, he departed for Italy in 1589, stopping in Naples in 1590 before continuing to Rome, where he remained from 1592 to 1594. Klaus Ertz suggests that he created the present work around 1593, while under the patronage of Cardinal Ascanio Colonna. If this dating is correct, it would precede his earliest securely dated works by a year. Closely related and also produced around 1593, according to Ertz, is a picture with a similar subject and dimensions on copper in the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna (inv. 458; Ertz 2008, op. cit., no. 75).
Particularly significant in establishing an early date for this painting is the manner in which leaves are painted in clusters with short staccato strokes, rather than the longer brushstrokes Jan used to paint foliage later in his career. Jan used this technique as a young artist, when he was looking most closely at the paintings of his father, Pieter Bruegel I. As the exhibition Brueghel Enterprises of 2002 at the Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht and Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts, Brussels demonstrated, Jan's brother Pieter II most likely used Pieter I's drawings, perhaps in the possession of his father's mother-in-law, artist Mayken Verhulst, as models for copies after Pieter I's works (see R. Duckwitz and C. Currie in Brueghel Enterprises, exhibition catalogue, Maastricht and Brussels, 2002, pp. 76-78 and 103-105). Louisa Wood Ruby speculates that a panel from this group now in a private collection (Ruby, op. cit., fig. 11) may have been completed before Jan went to Italy, its thin washes of color evidence of Jan's training with Verhulst, a watercolorist (Ruby, op. cit., p. 480). Regardless of their exact dating, this distinct group of landscape paintings demonstrates the Breughel family's savvy re-use of studio materials and sharing of artistic knowledge that spanned generations, prompting them to become the most accomplished and prolific dynasty of artists in the 16th- and 17th-century Netherlands.