Jan Brueghel the Elder
1568 Brussels - 1625 Antwerp
River Landscape with Fishers and a Cart
Oil on copper (with marks of Pieter Stas). 32.6 x 40.6 cm.
Galerie Richard Green, London 1976. - The Isidor Ostrer Collection. - Private collection, Belgium.
K. Ertz: Jan Brueghel d. Ä. Die Gemälde vol. I, 2008, p. 273, no. 122.
Jan Brueghel the Elder revolutionised Flemish landscape painting around the year 1600. Son of the famous “Peasant Brueghel”, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, he achieved the pinnacle of his career and prowess in the first decade of the 17th century. It was in this period that he created the works that made him famous even throughout his lifetime: spectacularly detailed scenes in vivid colours for which he became known as “Brueghel de Velours”, or Velvet Brueghel.
This river landscape can be dated to the painter's “golden era“, as it corresponds in both style and motif to dated works from the first decade of the 17th century. For example his “River Landscape with a Landing Stage” in the Wellington Museum in London (Ertz no. 120), dated 1606, or a depiction of the same subject formerly in the Gallery Sankt Lucas (Ertz no. 124) from 1607. The Toledo Museum of Arts houses the first known example of this kind of composition, which is slightly broader and dated to 1604 (Ertz no. 119).
This group of works is linked by their similarity of subject, as all depict a panoramic landscape scene combining earth, sky, and water populated by peasant figures going about their day-to-day life. This busy scene depicts trade, goods being loaded and unloaded, boats mooring or transporting livestock and people. The background is always formed by a winding village road lined with cottages, enlivened by larger and smaller groups, or single figures going along their way. At the end of the village street we see a distant church illuminated by the sunlight.
What Brueghel presents is a peaceful, harmonious scene with everything in its place, but this was no more a depiction of reality than it was an illustration of any specific place. When this work was painted, the Netherlands were still in the grips of a devastating war, which only gradually began to subside when the regency of Isabella Clara Eugenia of Spain and Archduke Albrecht of Austria started in the year 1600. The couple endeavoured to diminish the suffering of the previous years, courtly life flourished, and the artistic circle of the court at Brussels soon became a magnet for painters and artists, including Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder.
The charm of this well-preserved copper panel derives from the harmonious atmosphere that it exudes, a tribute to the idea of God-given order. This atmosphere is achieved and accentuated by the artistic brilliance with which the composition is arranged, the fineness of its details, and the use of blue and green tones throughout.