Paradise landscapes played an important role in the work of Jan Breughel II. He painted several versions of this hugely successful subject throughout his career, following the example of his father, Jan Breughel I. This painting is one of the earliest examples, dating to shortly after the artist’s return to the Netherlands from Italy in August 1625. While certain motifs are drawn from the work of his father, he combined these to create a composition that is distinctively his own. This precise composition is known in only four autograph versions, of which this is the only one to remain in private hands. Of these versions, the closest in terms of its quality is the slightly earlier picture in Budapest (Szépmüvészeti Múzeum). The design was evidently popular in Antwerp and was copied during Breughel’s lifetime by painters including Isaak van Oosten in the late 1650s (Toledo, Ohio, Toledo Museum of Art).
The range of animals and birds depicted in The Garden of Eden, and the care with which each is rendered is remarkable. As a court painter, Breughel’s father would have had access to the menageries of the Archdukes Albert and Isabella at Brussels. Indeed, Breughel I recalled his first-hand study of the animals in that collection in a letter to Cardinal Federico Borromeo in Rome, describing how the species depicted in his Garland with the Virgin and Child (Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado): ‘were done from life from the several of her Serene Highness’ specimens’ (A. van Suchtelen, in A. Woollett & A. van Suchtelen, Rubens and Brueghel: A Working Friendship, exhibition catalogue, Los Angeles, 2006, p. 69). While relying on studies made by his father, which he would have had access to in the workshop, Breughel II would also have drawn from his own first-hand observations, as testified to by surviving studies in his hand, including Studies of a stag (Private collection; Sotheby’s, London, 10 July 2014, lot 140). The realism with which Breughel depicted his subjects also conveys an understanding of their movements and behaviour.
These Paradise landscapes reflect the growing scientific interest in the natural world, which had evolved gradually during the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries, with publications such as Conrad Gesner’s Historia animalium (1551-8) and the Ornithologiæ by the Italian scholar Ulisse Aldrovandi (1599-1601), encouraging extensive and systematised descriptions of animals and birds. These sources grouped various species together according to their natural habitats and Breughel’s work, along with that of his father’s, following similar groupings of species, united in a single landscape setting. Depictions of the Garden of Eden would also have catered to current religious concerns, underlining the link between God and the natural world. The influence of figures like Cardinal Federico Borromeo on the work of Breughel’s father, who had worked for the Cardinal in Rome and maintained a close friendship with him throughout his life, was significant. Borromeo advocated the depiction of nature in art as a means of illustrating Divine order and his ideas were posthumously summarised in I tre libri delle laudi divine (1632), which encouraged worship of God through an appreciation of His Creation. Breughel’s meticulous rendering of such a multitude of animals and birds in this painting, therefore not only allowed the painter to demonstrate his powers of observation, but also served to emphasise the richness of God’s Creation.
This lot is sold with a copy of a certificate by Dr. Klaus Ertz, dated 19 June 2018, confirming the attribution after first-hand examination.