This hitherto unpublished work, which has remained in the same family since it was acquired in 1747, is an early treatment of this iconic Brueghelian subject. The composition stands out in Pieter the Younger’s oeuvre in that it is neither a direct copy of one of his father’s designs nor an adaptation of a Bruegellike composition by one of his father’s contemporaries, such as Martin van Cleve. Indeed the Payment of the Tithes is noticeably different from Pieter the Elder’s compositional, figural and facial types, and its derivation has therefore been the subject of much discussion. Georges Marlier did not discuss it in his monograph on the artist, and it was his posthumous editor, Jacqueline Folie, who first tackled the question in print in the catalogue of the 1993 Bonnefanten Museum exhibition Pieter Brueghel de Jonge.
Folie proposed on the basis of visual clues that the lost prototype was French. One obvious clue was the fact that the calendar on the wall is written in French, although she conceded that the significance of this was undermined by the fact that French was at the time the language of the legal profession in the Netherlands; in addition, however, she noted that the peasants’ short beards and close-cropped hair, as well as their costumes, were of a type not seen at the time in the Southern Netherlands (see O. Rogeau, ‘Tu vas parler, Brueghel!’, Le Vif. L’Express, 14 June 2002, pp. 32-33). Folie’s proposal was supported by Ingeborg Krueger (‘”... nimbt Gelt, Buter, Hüner, Endten ...” Zu Darstellungen des Bauernadvocaten von Pieter Brueghel d.J. und anderen’, Das Rheinische Landesmuseum Bonn, Berichte aus der Arbeit des Museums, 3, 1995, pp. 78-85); whilst Klaus Ertz, in his 2000 Catalogue Raisonné of Brueghel’s work, hypothesised that the original might be a lost painting by the French artist Nicolas Baullery (1560-1630).
The various versions of Brueghel’s Payment of the Tithes paintings can be divided into two main groups, regardless of size: those with plaited straw ropes on the back wall and under the central window, and those with a dark cloth there instead; the present painting is of the former type. An analysis of the two categories shows that, amongst dated versions, the compositional variant with plaited straw and the man on the far left with a grey/blue sleeve appears only in works dated 1615-1617; conversely those with a dark cloth and a man with a red sleeve appear from 1618-1626, with only two exceptions. Accordingly, the present work is likely to date to before 1618, when Brueghel decided for some reason to change his composition and colour scheme.