Winter landscapes provide the setting for some the Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s most important and popular compositions, such as the Birdtrap, the Census at Bethlehem and the Massacre of the Innocents, all of which relied on the invention of his father and were produced in multiple versions. This panel, recently deemed by Dr. Klaus Ertz to be ‘very good quality … and very well preserved’ (‘sehr gutter Qualität … und ist sehr gut erhalten’), is remarkable both for using a composition original to Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s own design and for the fact that only one other version is known to exist, a panel, also dated ‘1612’, sold Christie’s, New York, 26 October 2016, lot 69, when misattributed to Abel Grimmer.
Ertz has remarked that the figure types in this composition recall the work of Gillis Mostaert (c. 1528/9-1598), as can be seen for example in his Winter landscape in the Muzeum a galerie, Prostejove (Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere 1564-1637/38: Die Gemälde mit kritischem Oeuvrekatalog, Lingen, 1988/2000, II, pp. 795-6). Brueghel’s landscape, however, also provides a vivid demonstration of his own unmistakable style. The deft handling of the skeletal trees for example - an intricate network of entwined bare branches, topped with snow, silhouetted against a leaden sky - clearly recall the artist’s best treatments of the Birdtrap.
Brueghel’s vista presents a well-established landscape construction which had been widely used during the late-sixteenth century. Adopting a high view point, the composition presents a form of ‘world landscape’, providing a panoramic view across a lower plane, looking toward jagged mountains in the far distance. This device had been pioneered in Antwerp during the early-sixteenth century by Joachim Patinir and continued to be developed and adapted by Brueghel’s father, Mostaert and Joos de Momper.
At the left of the pathway, which leads away down the hill to the town beyond, a wealthily dressed family is accosted by an armed robber, who holds his sword in hand as he accosts them. Huddled before him, a woman protects her child, while her husband thrusts his purse of money at the thief in the hopes of buying him off. The gathering of soldiers on the other side of the river could allow the work to be interpreted as depicting the Massacre of the Innocents, with the mounted knights gathering in readiness to storm the village beyond. The relative calm of the scene, however, and the marked difference from Brueghel’s large-scale versions of the subject that depended on the composition of his father, potentially count against this reading. The cavalry unit and the assault shown in the foreground can perhaps be better understood as a disguised indictment of the uncontrolled dissipations of the Habsburg army during the Eighty Years’ War. Though this picture was painted during the tenuous Twelve Years’ Truce (1609-1621), troops during the conflict had regularly looted towns, causing widespread chaos in their wake, and the somewhat ominous gathering in the distance of Brueghel’s panel, in combination with the robbery on the road, suggests something of the anarchy which had been so widespread during the war and which had had such a devastating effect on the Netherlandish countryside.
This lot is sold with a copy of a certificate by Dr. Klaus Ertz, dated October 2019, confirming the attribution, after first hand inspection.