This hitherto unrecorded work is an early treatment of this iconic Brueghelian subject, distinguished by its excellent condition and its meticulous rendering of detail. The date, traditionally read as 1613, which would make it the earliest dated treatment of the subject, appears more likely to be 1618, the year in which Pieter Brueghel produced at least half a dozen dated versions of the subject, including those in the Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht; the Norwich Castle Museum; and the picture sold at Christie’s, London, 2 July 2013, lot 29 (£1,047,475).
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 in its place; the present painting is of the latter type. Amongst the dated versions of this subject, the compositional variant with plaited straw and the man on the far left with a grey/blue sleeve appears only in works dated up until 1617; conversely those with a dark cloth and a man with a red sleeve appear from 1618-26, with only two exceptions. One might therefore hypothesise that Brueghel decided for some reason to change his composition and colour scheme in circa 1618, the date of this painting. The type of the signature (P. BREVGHEL rather than P. BRVEGHEL) is also what one would expect in 1618, since the artist changed the spelling of his name decisively in 1616 (see K. Ertz, Breughel-Brueghel: Pieter Breughel le Jeune (1564-1637/8) - Jan Brueghel l’Ancien (1568-1625), exhibition catalogue, Lingen, 1998, p. 19).
This composition is unusual in Pieter the Younger’s oeuvre in that it is neither a direct copy of one of his father’s compositions nor an adaptation of a Bruegel-like composition by one of his father’s contemporaries, such as Martin van Cleve, or close followers. Indeed, the Payment of the Tithes is noticeably different from Pieter the Elder’s compositional, figural and facial types, and its source has therefore been the subject of much discussion. One suggestion has been that the lost prototype was French. Indeed the calendar on the wall is written in French, although this was at the time the language of the legal profession in the Netherlands, and the peasants’ short beards, close-cropped hair and costumes were of a type not typically seen at the time in the southern Netherlands. Klaus Ertz, in his 2000 catalogue raisonné of Brueghel’s work, hypothesised that the original prototype might be a lost painting by the French artist Nicolas Baullery (1560-1630).