Primarily known for his uncanny renditions of his famed father’s paintings, the importance of Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s work has long been a point of contention. Far more than a copyist, the younger Brueghel proved to be a gifted artist in his own right and helped to solidify the Brueghel name amongst the legendary Old Masters.
Born in Brussels into a family of artists sometime between 1564 and 1565, he was the eldest son of Dutch and Flemish Renaissance legend Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the first in a rich artistic dynasty that spanned over 200 years. Bruegel the Elder specialized in the depiction of peasants and landscapes, pioneering a form of genre art that did not focus on the Church or aristocracy. It was in these same subjects that Brueghel the Younger would also excel.
Bruegel the Elder died in 1569 before the Younger and his brother, Jan Brueghel the Elder, were five years of age. Though sources differ on who exactly put the brothers on their artistic path, there is substantial evidence that suggests it was their maternal grandmother, Mayken Verhulst, who was a highly talented artist of watercolor and miniatures. The boys went to live with her after their father’s passing, and while under her care, she became their first art teacher.
The family moved to Antwerp in 1578, where Brueghel the Younger came under the apprenticeship of Flemish landscapist Gillis van Coninxloo. By 1585, the registers of the Antwerp painters’ Guild of St. Luke listed “Peeter Brugel” as a Master, meaning he had completed his required apprenticeships and was officially an independent artist.
As the eldest son, Brueghel the Younger had inherited his father’s business, and by 1588, Brueghel headed his own studio with close to a dozen apprentices under his wing. It was here that his reputation for his reproductions of his father’s paintings skyrocketed, but why?
Bruegel the Elder is known to only have created 45 works, and by the time the Younger established his own studio, those creations were held in the private collections of the patrons who commissioned them. Yet, the demand for the Elder’s unique paintings was immense and continued to be so long after his death. It is believed the Elder left behind a great catalog of sketches, early renderings and studies that his son fully utilized to master his style. Seeing a great economic opportunity, Brueghel the Younger created incredibly high-quality recreations of his father’s works for Antwerp’s booming export market. Not only did this bring the Younger’s studio commercial success, but it also elevated the genius of his father’s works, and, by extension, the Brueghel name, to an international level.
While much of his oeuvre was dedicated to the works of his father, Brueghel did compose subjects uniquely his own. This oil on panel, entitled “The Payment of Tithe,” is one example of a work by Brueghel that was not originally created by his father. This 17th-century masterpiece depicts a subject that resonated with Flemish art patrons of the time: a caricatured figure of King Charles V of Spain as a tax collector. This composition is a striking illustration of the unfavorable opinion Flemish peasants held towards their sovereign authorities. The figures and setting are painted in impeccable detail, from the bundles of bags to the papers strewn throughout.
Brueghel made multiple renditions of this work; of those, only 21 are signed. This example is one of the handful that bears Brueghel’s signature. In fact, Brueghel expert Dr. Klaus Ertz has said of this painting, “In comparison with other paintings it is clear that the examined painting is one of the artist’s best.”
Brueghel’s original creations have been part of prestigious museum collections throughout the world, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, The National Gallery of Prague and others. More recently, the Holbourne Museum in Bath, England discovered in November 2016 that a painting in their collection, entitled “Wedding Dance in the Open Air” was not a copy of the Elder’s work, but a genuine original composition by Brueghel the Younger.
Pieter Brueghel the Younger rightly holds a place in art history as one of the most important artists of the 17th century. He was greatly admired during his lifetime by his peers, including the great Anthony van Dyck, who painted his portrait (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), and Peter Paul Rubens, who coveted Brueghel’s works for his own collection. His reputation simply as a “copyist” withered in the early 20th century as his, and the works of the entire Brueghel family, regained the attention and appreciation of the art world once again.