The present painting, last seen in public in 1927, is a highly characteristic and well-preserved work by Pieter Schoubroeck, who was born in a small village near Frankenthal. His parents married in Frankenthal in 1567 and Pieter must have been born shortly after. This birth date concords with the fact that he was active as a painter and draughtsman from 1595 onwards. Actually a German master, Schoubroeck's work has always been discussed in relation to the development of the Flemish landscape tradition. He is not reported to have travelled to Flanders, but his parents were Flemish emigrées connected to painters such as Gillis van Coninxloo and various members of the Valckenborch family. A drawing in the Fondation Custodia in Paris is inscribed 'peeter schoubrock Romae 1595' is evidence that the artist spent time in Italy, where he must have become familiar with the art of Paul Bril and Jan Brueghel the Elder.
Pieter Schoubroeck's Tower of Babel was executed during the first years of the seventeenth century. Several landscape elements such as the gnarled tree trunks and the spiky foliage, as well as the distribution of light, are very similar to a Landscape with travellers dated 1606, also painted on copper, previously with Johnny van Haeften (Dutch and Flemish Old Master Paintings, exhibition catalogue, London, 1999, no. 20).
Minkowski (op. cit., 1959, p. 68, no. 220; and 1991, p. 200, no. 309) reproduces another version after the present work, also by Schoubroeck, on panel, measuring 51 x 95 cm., last seen in Munich (Anonymous sale; Hugo Helbing, Munich, 1 March 1932, lot 488). To judge from the photograph in the Helbing sale catalogue, this larger version seems to be of lesser merit compared to the present painting, which was given to Jan Brueghel the Younger by Minkowski.
The subject of the building of the Tower of Babel derives from the Book of Genesis. According to the story, the generations following the Great Flood spoke a single language and migrated from the east, finally settling in the land of Shinhar, where they resolved to build a city with a tower 'whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth' (Genesis 11:4). It was their King Nimrod who finally commissioned the enormous edifice to be built. In the present painting the king and his entourage are seen on horseback in the middle distance at the left of the composition.
Most depictions of the Tower of Babel painted during the last decades of the sixteenth and the early seventeenth centuries are indebted to Pieter Bruegel the Elder's rendering of the theme from 1563, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. However, with its strong emphasis on human activity, the composition of the present painting seems to go back to paintings by Herri met de Bles and Lucas van Gassel from the 1530s and 1540s. Especially Bles's fine depictions of landscapes with metal foundries, such as the ones today in Graz and Florence, must have been important sources of inspiration for Schoubroeck.
We are grateful to drs Luuk Pijl for the above catalogue note.