Jan Brueghel and the Senses of Scale
Elizabeth Alice Honig
Jan Brueghel and the Senses of Scale
Elizabeth Alice Honig
“Jan Brueghel and the Senses of Scale presents a long-awaited and much-needed analysis of a critical yet neglected painter. What Elizabeth Honig offers in this study fills a crucial lacuna, as no one else has redressed the relative absence of Jan Brueghel in period accounts, even in the standard surveys of Flemish painting. This is thoughtful, critical, and revisionist art history that challenges assumptions about the importance of period style and pictorial categories.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
It has been easy for art historians to overlook the work of Jan Brueghel, Pieter’s son. Yet the very qualities of smallness and intimacy that have marginalized him among historians made the younger Brueghel a central figure in the seventeenth-century art world. Elizabeth Honig’s thoughtful exploration reveals how his works—which were portable, mobile, and intimate—questioned conceptions of distance, dimension, and style. Honig proposes an alternate form of visuality that allows us to reevaluate how pictures were experienced in seventeenth-century Europe, how they functioned, and how and what they communicated.
A monumental examination of an extraordinary artist, Jan Brueghel and the Senses of Scale reconsiders Brueghel’s paintings and restores them to their rightful place in history.
“Jan Brueghel and the Senses of Scale presents a long-awaited and much-needed analysis of a critical yet neglected painter. What Elizabeth Honig offers in this study fills a crucial lacuna, as no one else has redressed the relative absence of Jan Brueghel in period accounts, even in the standard surveys of Flemish painting. This is thoughtful, critical, and revisionist art history that challenges assumptions about the importance of period style and pictorial categories.”
“A refined, multivalenced study of how Jan Brueghel’s work can be interpreted for size, subject, and patronage. . . . Highly recommended.”
“[Honig] has made the most historically cogent and pictorially compelling argument that can be made for Brueghel’s work. To read the book is to see his strikingly different kind of ambitious painting with new eyes and to consider that historic painting can differ from the unique iconic masterpieces one looks for made by masters both old and new.”
“A masterful treatment of the artist that also manages to make an important contribution to the study of the philosophy, taste and collecting habits of late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century collectors.”
“Honig’s text is a thoughtful, wide-ranging, and articulate presentation of a relatively unfamiliar aesthetic, that of miniaturization.”
“Honig's core claim, that Jan Brueghel's art must be understood in relation to an aesthetic of smallness that elicits close viewing, is beautifully supported by the book's outstanding production values; high-quality illustrations, including carefully selected details, enable the reader to look with Honig and be guided by her practiced eye.”
Elizabeth Alice Honig is Associate Professor of European Art at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of Painting and the Market in Early Modern Antwerp (1999).
List of Illustrations
1 Forging Connections
2 Hands-On Art: Brueghel, Francken, and Habits of Collecting in Rome and Antwerp
3 Small Stories: Brueghel and the Painting of Classical History
4 Genealogy: The Burden of Descent and the Individuality of Style
5 Paradise Regained: Collaboration as the Sociability of Visual Thought
The paintings of Renaissance and Baroque Europe are things apart from us. Dependent upon distance in the most basic aspect of their construction—Alberti’s measure for establishing the illusion of pictorial space—they orient themselves toward their beholders and frame another, coherent world to be observed, desired, aspired to, worshipped, analyzed. Models of response to early modern painting therefore assume a subject-object relationship based on physical distance and on difference, even opposition: the human and the holy, say, or the masculine and the feminine. In holding to its otherness, the painting acknowledges the beholder as subject, directing its figured and enframed surface toward the embodied beholder, who becomes what Thomas Puttfarken calls the object of the picture’s intention, an intention to be beheld from a distance.
This book is about paintings that largely fail to conform to that model of distance. Instead of addressing embodied beholders as others, they cleave to particular bodies: multiple hands worked on them, multiple hands held them. Often they served to build bridges between individuals. They communicated not only as fields for representation but as intimate personal objects. As small, solid, stable things, they moved easily from studio to studio within a neighborhood, but also from city to city, even across the continent to distant colleagues and patrons.
In the summer of 1605, Jan Brueghel of Antwerp sent one such painting to Cardinal Federico Borromeo in Milan. “Allow me,” he wrote to his former patron, “to send you this poor letter accompanied by a little copper plate [rametto], made by me with great diligence, begging your excellency to accept it favorably. I believe that nothing like it has been seen in either oils or in miniature [gouache], nor anything more diligent.” The painting he sent was smaller than a modern postcard and showed a mouse and a cut rose with a caterpillar crawling up its stem, a butterfly perched on its largest bud (fig. 1). These were portrayed against a white ground, playfully mimicking the effect of Joris Hoefnagel’s botanical and zoological images executed in gouache on parchment, and indeed Brueghel’s model was a print after Hoefnagel’s design. But Jan’s picture was something more solid, for even a small copper plate is a thing of substance.
<insert fig. 1 about here>
The function of Jan’s gift was to renew and revise a relationship that had languished for nearly a decade. Jan had left Milan for Antwerp in the summer of 1596, and in the following year, the cardinal himself was called back to Rome. No painting by Brueghel had entered Borromeo’s collection since 1597, at which point the artist had been continuing a series of pictures, begun during his stay in Milan, that showed hermits in landscape settings. Now, though, Borromeo had contacted him, evidently requesting that he provide landscape and still-life elements for some paintings whose figures had been executed by Hans Rottenhammer; but Jan sensed greater potential in Borromeo’s renewed patronage. In nearly a decade back in his homeland, his art had developed in new directions, and he had attained considerable professional stature. Borromeo needed to be made aware of this. The Mouse and Rose announced his new interest in life-sized images of small naturalia, particularly flowers. In the summer of 1605 he was probably painting the first of the large flower still lifes for which he would become famous, since correspondence about the version he sold to Borromeo the following summer indicates that he initiated such works in the spring as flowers began to blossom and continued working on them throughout the blooming season.
The tiny rametto was not the only communicative gift Brueghel had in mind for his patron. In his letter the painter also promised Borromeo that in eight days he would be sending, by way of one Signor Vergaini, another painting. It was to be “of the ordinary size,” that is, the same dimensions as the pictures Brueghel had provided for Borromeo back in Italy, 25 × 35 centimeters, about the size of a modern piece of notebook paper. But the 1605 picture was a new kind of subject, to announce Brueghel’s more recent interests. Apart from landscapes, with or without hermits, all Jan’s Italian pictures for Borromeo had been histories: Lot’s family fleeing the burning Sodom, Christ and his apostles braving a storm on the Lake of Tiberius (fig. 2), a ferocious vision of the damned suffering torment in hell. But now he was developing a line in allegory: specifically, in cosmological allegory and the imagery of nature’s abundance. Just a year earlier he had executed, in collaboration with his friend Hendrick van Balen, a large painting on copper showing the goddess Ceres surrounded by four female figures personifying the elements. Van Balen had painted the sensuous nudes, while Brueghel provided the lush landscape overflowing with flora and fauna, the gifts of nature.
<insert fig. 2 about here>
This was to become a popular composition: the two artists would create at least one fairly exact replica, and Brueghel’s studio would manufacture many more copies. Brueghel knew, however, that Borromeo needed something subtly different. He would only take a picture that was modest (thus no nudes), and if Jan stuck with “the ordinary size,” his new work would fit neatly into Borromeo’s established collection and would at once remind the cardinal of their old patronage relationship and suggest a new direction it might take. Hence the painting that followed Brueghel’s letter was a unique item for a special patron (fig. 3). It was, as Brueghel tells Borromeo in the letter, “executed with taste and pleasantness. . . . The subject is the goddess Ceres with the cornucopia full of fruits in her arms, accompanied by four putti, signifying the four elements: Earth with fruits, flowers, and animals; Water with many rare shells and various fish and other oddities; Air with many sorts of birds; everything well finished.” The picture, indeed, allowed Brueghel to show off his talents, not as a painter of nature’s individual specimens, but as a cataloguer of its variety. The small surface is crammed with detail. Fruits of the sea spill from the ocean, in the left background, filling the foreground with all sorts of crustaceans and amphibians, while on the right a profusion of rare flowers blossom and beasts of forest and field rest in the distance. The putto representing air flies playfully among local and exotic birds while Fire illuminates the scene with his torch.
<insert fig. 3 about here>
Brueghel’s painting carried to its recipient a cornucopia of visual riches, advertising the artist’s ability to represent profusion in both its subject and its execution. Gathering and multiplying, it provides much and promises more; paired with the Mouse and Rose, settling into a collection among landscapes and histories, it suggests that a future for painting might lie in its mastery of copia, the rhetorical trope that provides a feast for the mind, its eloquent accumulations made to cohere by the force of allegory. Borromeo, like Ceres herself, could hold the whole world in his hands.
Small size and intimacy, multiplicity and detail, replication of nature’s smallest marvels: the qualities Brueghel hoped the great Italian patron would recognize and appreciate in his new work are not the qualities often associated with the art of Brueghel’s era. Chronologically, Brueghel belongs firmly to the Baroque and was closely tied to two painters whose work is often used to exemplify the Baroque age, Caravaggio and Rubens. He shared patrons, including Borromeo, with the former, may have known him personally, and certainly knew his work: in later years Brueghel, like Rubens, would be instrumental in facilitating the purchase of a Caravaggio altarpiece for the city of Antwerp. And besides being fellow Caravaggio fans, Rubens and Brueghel were close friends who frequently executed paintings jointly for major patrons across Europe. Yet Brueghel is all but absent from every survey of this period, and it is not hard to understand why. Baroque art is about grand passions and rhetorical power. It is subjective and self-reflexive; it is characterized by what Heinrich Wölfflin would call unity rather than multiplicity. Above all, it is big. It can only manifest itself on a grand scale. Baroque art does not want to remain confined but pushes into the space of the beholder. The Baroque has no truck with bits and pieces and scorns the detailed and the modest. All these commonplaces, drawn from surveys of Baroque art, fail wholly to describe the painting of Jan Brueghel.
For nearly a century after Wölfflin, characterizing art by stylistic period remained a major goal of art history. This was particularly so for scholars of the Baroque, in part because questions of style change in the arts had been formulated around that period and in part because the period had no coherent definition other than a stylistic one. While scholarship today is not particularly interested in style categories, it has inherited the legacy of that kind of thinking. The canon favors artists whose works were once useful in defining a period style, and this is one reason Jan Brueghel has never featured as a significant master of his time.
Relegated to the status of an artist of merely local importance, Brueghel has been studied by scholars of Flemish painting, and even they have been apologetic about having to deal with him. Marcel de Maeyer is remarkably unenthusiastic about Brueghel in his book on artists of the Brussels court, calling him an “archaizing” painter with a “very local accent,” an artisanal maker of precious curiosities who was never greatly esteemed by his Habsburg patrons—this despite copious evidence to the contrary. In De Maeyer’s story, even though it is a local one, Brueghel is entirely overshadowed by Rubens. Rubens is the thinking man’s artist, transcending the merely Flemish to become a citizen of the world. Indeed, nearly every great cultural center of seventeenth-century Europe lays claim to Rubens in some way or another, but only Antwerp owns Jan Brueghel: even Brussels, De Maeyer makes clear, does not want him. In a 1998 survey of Flemish painting Jan is given three sentences in the section on history painting, four in the section on genre painting, and a brief mention as a painter of architecture; his landscapes and flowers receive slightly more attention. Here the problem is one of excessive range: when you break painting down by genre instead of by style, Brueghel does not fit nicely into a category. Master of all, star of none.
It would be convenient to argue that today’s art-historical categories are the problem, that discussion of Jan Brueghel requires repudiation of genres and style and regionalization as principles of analysis. Critics could then place him in a framework that charts cultural character and its changes in terms of epistemology, interpreting his allegories, for instance, in the context of Michel Foucault’s preclassical episteme or Hans Blumenberg’s theoretical curiosity. This would not be unhelpful, and yet I think that the categories originally laid down by art history were quite important to Brueghel himself. Of course, he would not have formulated them as the twentieth century did. Terms for genres, for instance, were just developing in Brueghel’s day, yet nobody can have been more aware than he of the different sorts of subject matter, how they could be conceived of as separate from one another, and their consequent possibilities for creative recombination. And while painters whose Baroque rhetoric transcended regional boundaries to speak across continents may be preferable to the modern sensibility, regional identity was highly meaningful in Brueghel’s day, and the artist chose to exploit that meaning. While in Italy he was aware that he represented Flemishness to his patrons, that even in working to their tastes and interests he also needed to provide them with qualities they associated with a particular foreign manner. Likewise, when he returned to Antwerp, it was as an artist who had been formed in Italy—perhaps not so much in his visual manner as in his priorities, habits of thought, and sense of identity.
Nothing was more important to an artist’s identity in Brueghel’s Italy than style. “Period styles” as art historians use them are often retrospective and anachronistic, but the need to find some style that would be new, modern, fitting for the age, was very much on the minds of artists and writers in late sixteenth-century Italy. Acute consciousness of the need for stylistic modernity had as its corollary an elevation of the importance of an individual signature style. To Giovanni Armenini, writing in 1586, a good style was the artist’s ultimate achievement. Facility in invention could be acquired through effort and study, but style was the hallmark of real individual talent. One thing this book argues is that Brueghel made himself into, and presented himself as, an artist of style.
In itself that is an old argument. The most frequent accusation against Brueghel is that he is all style and no substance; for here Jan’s other crucial connection matters. He is the son of Pieter Bruegel, an artist whose substance is undisputed. Even Jan’s greatest champion, German scholar Klaus Ertz, is blunt about how disadvantaged Jan is by this comparison: yes, Jan was aware of theology and philosophy, Ertz shrugs, but basically he asked none of the deep questions that his father had pursued. The comparison is misleading and rests precariously on the genealogical connection; a painter in 1600 would not have practiced art in the same way as one working in 1560. Circumstances, expectations, the functions of painting had all changed. Again, though, what might seem like a red herring in framing an understanding of Jan Brueghel is actually critical. It mattered hugely to Jan himself that he was Pieter’s son. The historian’s problem lies in comparing the two on the terms set by Pieter’s art rather than asking what the relationship would have meant in his son’s generation.
But I think that what has most damned Jan Brueghel to the innermost circle of art-historical hell is the simple fact that he worked on a small scale, often a truly minuscule one. Not always, of course. A few of the later works, particularly those executed on commissions for his Habsburg patrons and now in the Prado, are respectably large, reaching up to 2.5 meters in length and 1.5 meters in height. A reasonable size for many artists of the time, this is gargantuan for Jan Brueghel: to come upon the Allegory of Sight and Smell in Essen’s 1997 Brueghel exhibition, after room upon room of his other works, was absolutely shocking (figs. 4a, 4b). Here, though, Brueghel was an organizer as much as an artisan, bringing together a dozen colleagues to work on an appropriately massive gift for their rulers. Much more usual for Brueghel himself, especially in the first decades of his career, are works painted on copper plates measuring about 25 × 35 centimeters: what was for Borromeo the “ordinary size” was also ordinary for the rest of Jan’s patrons. Other works, even ones for the Habsburgs, measure a fraction of that. Tiny landscapes on ivory that could be cupped in the palm of a hand; histories on copper plates whose details could only be appreciated from a few inches’ distance (fig. 5). None of the available models of the Baroque viewing experience provides an adequate way of discussing the aesthetic, and the power, of smallness. But that is necessary to any understanding of what Jan Brueghel was doing and what his contemporaries appreciated about his work.
<insert figs. 4 & 5 about here>
This is important because Jan Brueghel was not just another neglected cabinet painter producing decor for local burgher homes. Brueghel was an artist of immense ambition, who intended his art to be judged equal to that of the greatest international masters of the time and who to a large extent achieved this. In his own day, he stood with Rubens as one of the two great painters in northern Europe. His works were sought after and appreciated by discerning patrons all over the continent, from Italian cardinals to Polish princes, and this was true from the very beginning of his documented career until its conclusion. Like other artistic superstars of his day, he received multiple gold chains from noble patrons in recognition of his artistic excellence. At the birth of his youngest child, in 1623, the infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia herself stood as godparent, as she had done for one of Rubens’s children as well. Successful at the highest levels of patronage, Brueghel was equally successful at lower ones. His busy studio provided affordable versions of his work for the market, and the taste for images in his manner would continue through generations of ordinary buyers.
In February of 1614, when Duke Johann Ernst of Saxony stopped in Antwerp on his cultural tour of Europe, he was shown works by the two greatest local painters at a dealer’s shop and then visited their studios. “Rubens generally paints large pieces, all truly of life size, but artfully beautiful and after life,” his traveling companion noted in his journal. “But Brueghel paints little paintings with landscapes, but so subtle and artful that you can only wonder to look at them.” What was being shown to the cultivated visitor in 1614 was that two distinct types of painting were being practiced in Antwerp, by two artists of enormous stature who offered complementary, but extremely different, forms of art. In 1614 Rubens was a relative newcomer: he had only been established in the city for five years. Brueghel, on the other hand, had been working in Antwerp for more than fifteen years and was the center of the city’s art world. He supported his junior colleague’s career, though, because he knew that Rubens’s manner of working would not be in competition with his but would complement it.
By situating Jan Brueghel’s type of painting as an alternative form of visuality in European culture around 1600, this book seeks to reconsider how pictures were looked at and evaluated in that culture, how they functioned, how and what they communicated. I begin in the present chapter with a brief account of Jan’s career up until about 1614, the moment of Johann Ernst’s visit to Antwerp. I am interested in how Jan had reached the position—social and professional—that he occupied at that point: what career decisions he had made, how he had used painting to forge connections within and across social and professional classes, how he had organized his artistic production. In this chapter I also present some basic hypotheses about Jan’s working practice, his studio, and the general scope of his vast, complex oeuvre.
The rest of the book addresses the way Brueghel painted, the effects he achieved, and what relationship his aesthetic had to modes of cognition, analysis, and understanding in the culture of his time. Chapter 2 considers the world of small things, particularly in Italy and the Spanish Netherlands in the 1590s, and looks at the physical situations in which Brueghel’s paintings were originally encountered. The years around 1600 constituted a period of transition in the history of collecting and display: the Kunstkammer and the picture gallery were both available as models, and I consider what role small art assumed in either type of collection. Small pictures allowed for a close physical connection with the artwork and promoted intimate social exchanges among connoisseurs. Brueghel’s works functioned brilliantly in this context, for their combination of loose facture and small size elicits a complex dynamic between the senses of sight and touch. I therefore investigate how late sixteenth-century beholders understood the relation of sight to touch and how touchable art had special cognitive and communicative potential.
While chapter 2 treats the general sense of Brueghel’s way of making art, chapters 3 through 5 examine how his aesthetic played out in specific types of pictures or practices of production. Each chapter considers how attitudes and ideas that Brueghel acquired in Italy inflected the kind of artist he became back home in Antwerp. Chapter 3 looks at Brueghel as a history painter. This entire side of his production has been greatly underestimated. But Jan formed himself at the start of his career as a history painter, and his manner of visual storytelling was unique. Other painters of small histories kept their figures at roughly the same scale relative to the picture surface as did artists working in the “grand manner”; Brueghel did not, and this altered his work as a narrator. The minuscule actors in his stories, their tiny faces curiously drawn with strokes of paint, are marvels of representation through minimal material means and demand a particular kind of engaged interpretation from their beholders.
Of course, Jan had a family tradition in history painting to maintain. And in genre painting, landscape, and allegory. Chapter 4 looks at this fundamental fact of Brueghel’s life: that he was the son of an artist who was a local cultural icon and whose fame had spread throughout Europe by the time Jan began his career. Artistic dynasties were normal in the Netherlands, and Jan’s older brother, Pieter the Younger, made a career out of producing copies of their father’s compositions. Jan’s eldest son was to do the same after his father’s death. But when Jan started painting, there was no precedent for a great master’s son aspiring to become an equally great original artist within the following generation. While being his father’s son always mattered to Jan Brueghel, it was upon his return to Antwerp that he had fully to confront what Pieter Bruegel’s legacy would mean to him. In that context, he made legacy and tradition into sources of inspiration rather than constraint, moving between Italian theories of originality and style and Flemish practices of replication.
My final chapter takes the narrative to that moment in 1614 when Rubens and Brueghel were paired as the greatest artists in Antwerp and considers how, instead of being rivals, the two operated as partners, frequently collaborating in the execution of their masterpieces. Here again, Brueghel revised a local tradition for a new purpose, based in part on ideas he had learned in Italy. Collaboration had been a studio convenience for second-rank Flemish artists of an earlier generation, but Jan first began working in tandem with other painters during his years in Italy. There the method took on a more elevated resonance, for Italian social theory promoted the value of friendship and conversation in generating original thought. Thus a workshop trick for the inept was transformed into a conceptual stimulus for the elite. Uniquely, Brueghel was, in a manner of speaking, multilingual, expert in nearly every type of pictorial imagery in use at the time and therefore able to collaborate conversationally with any of the specialized painters in his circle; but I look particularly at his work with the intellectual Rubens as an example of how ideas were generated in pictorial conversation.
I do not intend to present 1614—or actually 1615, when Rubens and Brueghel collaborated on their Paradise with the Fall of Man—as a critical turning point in Jan’s career. He had yet to produce the Five Senses allegories, the culmination of nearly two decades of encyclopedic thinking and collaborative painting. But I do think that by 1615 Brueghel had fully explored those aspects of his art that were most original and important, and that after that point—and especially after the Senses—he became a less interesting artist. The works that filled his studio at the time of his death, in 1625, scenes of Diana’s nymphs at the hunt produced collaboratively with Hendrick van Balen, were modish and attractive and conformed easily to the general style of cabinet painting of the 1620s. Jan was also, for reasons unknown, far less productive in that last decade—perhaps his health was failing, or perhaps he was fully occupied in supervising a workshop that produced copies of his successful early works. My interest, though, is in the part of his life when he forged a career as a strong, independent painter working in an individual manner that did not conform to the standards other similarly ambitious painters were setting. Even while the scale of his works remained small, the scale of his ambition was never other than immense.
<1> Crafting a Career
Although the Bruegel family is commonly associated with the commercial metropolis of Antwerp, Pieter Bruegel lived in Brussels from at least 1563, possibly before, until his death. It was there that he married Maria Coecke van Aelst, daughter of painter and tapestry designer Pieter Coecke van Aelst, who had probably been Bruegel’s teacher back in Antwerp. All of the couple’s children were Brussels-born: Pieter the Younger in 1564 or 1565, Maria in 1566, and Jan in 1568 or 1569. Since Pieter the Elder died in 1569, his youngest son never knew him at all. The children were raised by their widowed mother, but she too died when Jan was nine or ten years old. Then the boys were sent to relatives to learn the family trade: Pieter the Younger went to his mother’s cousin Gillis van Coninxloo, while Jan went to his maternal grandmother and learned to paint in watercolors.
This, at least, is what Van Mander writes, and it seems a reasonable tale. Painting was a family business, and boys were often sent to a relative to avoid paying apprenticeship costs. It was less common that the relative was a grandmother, but Mayken Verhulst Bessemers was no ordinary grandmother. She was from a great painting family of the city of Mechelen. Of her ten siblings, all either became artists or married artists; she did both. Her fame was such that she was mentioned by Ludovico Guicciardini as one of the excellent female painters from Antwerp, along with Catherina van Hemessen and Levina Teerlinc. She would therefore have been a very appropriate teacher for her grandson, and most writers have assumed that she instructed him in manuscript illumination, a technique in which water-based paints were used. This would explain much about his penchant for extremely small paintings.
If only the story were so straightforward as Van Mander makes it seem. Recent archival research, however, complicates things. It seems that Mayken Verhulst had moved from Antwerp to Mechelen long before she would have become Jan’s teacher, while Jan himself—and his brother—stayed in Brussels until 1583. How, then, did they get their early training? And in what technique were they trained?
About these matters one can only speculate. The Brueghel boys had relatives who worked in the Brussels tapestry industry, and they might have been instructed in this context. Tapestry played a crucial role in the development of several types of imagery that would later be important to Jan Brueghel: forest landscapes, and paradise landscapes with collections of familiar and exotic animals. But that is iconography. It is harder to say what Jan Brueghel could have learned from the techniques of tapestry designers that would have put him on the artistic path he eventually followed. What follow are a few hypotheses.
If Jan was trained in a tapestry-design workshop, he was most likely learning techniques of replication and how to think across scales, both important talents for his future career. A worker in a tapestry shop was trained to study a small drawn composition—the petit patron provided by the designer—and translate it into a full-scale cartoon, executed in watercolor. Cartoon painting might have related to Jan’s grandmother’s practice as well. The term Van Mander uses to describe Mayken Verhulst’s work, water-verwe, refers to large-scale watercolor painting on cloth and not to small-scale water-based painting on parchment or paper, which he calls verlichterij. Mechelen was famed for painters who worked in watercolor on cloth, and the Verhulst Bessemers family had been workers in that medium. From there it was an easy step to tapestry work, at least in technical terms; indeed, it is possible that Mayken’s connection with her future husband, Pieter Coecke van Aelst, began because he was recruiting watercolor painters from Mechelen for his tapestry business, hiring her brother and a cousin. Tapestry cartoons were executed on either paper or cloth, but no extant records indicate which support Brueghel’s Brussels relatives used or whether they limited themselves to tapestry work at all. They could also have been producing independent water-verwe paintings, as Mayken probably did.
Early watercolor paintings on lightly prepared linen cloths were not as durable as later oil paintings on canvas and have not survived well, but it was a technique with a long tradition in the Netherlands. Van Mander’s disparaging comments about assembly-line production have given cloth paintings a bad name in art history, but in fact major artists produced original works on cloth. Bosch did, and so did Jan’s father, Pieter, from his early Adoration of the Magi (fig. 6) to the late Blind Leading the Blind. Fine paintings on cloth could be special, bravura performances fit for the collection of a connoisseur, for to execute a complex, original composition in this medium required considerable mastery and produced a unique effect. The paint was thinly and loosely applied, work had to proceed rapidly, unblended individual brushstrokes remained visible, and—unlike in oil painting—mistakes could not be corrected. Certain of these qualities would remain, in modified form, in the manner of oil painting Jan would eventually develop.
<insert fig. 6 about here>
Jan would not have been the only artist to move from larger watercolors on cloth to work at a miniature scale. Hans Bol had made the same transition a generation earlier. Bol’s early works in Mechelen were apparently original high-quality cloth paintings, “to which,” says Van Mander, “he applied great precision and good technique with a sure, precise manner in setting up and finishing his works.” It was only upon his move to Antwerp in 1572 that Bol abandoned that technique and took up verlichterij. Bartholomeus Spranger too dabbled in both small and large watercolor paintings before settling down to oils.
The ease with which artists evidently moved between water-verwe and verlichterij suggests that Van Mander’s brief comments about Brueghel’s grandmother may not be entirely accurate. It had been assumed that she was a miniaturist in part because this was a more common profession for Netherlandish women to pursue. It does seem feasible that in a family of watercolorists the talented girl could have worked small, executing fine miniatures while her male relatives designed tapestries and landscapes. That would help explain why her husband’s pupil Pieter Bruegel, when he visited Italy, befriended the famed miniaturist Giulio Clovio and how it came about that Clovio owned a small work on ivory by the Flemish master and a miniature on which the two of them had collaborated, as well as two Bruegel landscapes done “a guazzo”—probably larger works on cloth. As for Jan’s training, although Mayken Verhulst lived in Mechelen while her grandson was growing up in Brussels, the cities are very close, and he could easily have spent time studying with her as well as working with his Brussels relatives. I am hesitant to dismiss Van Mander’s narrative, because Jan Brueghel’s manner of depicting the human face and figure, which I discuss more in chapter 3, seems indebted to the figurative habits of manuscript illumination, cousin to independent works of verlichterij. Indeed, Jan’s whole way of building an image out of tiny disengaged brushstrokes, often with only schematic underdrawing, relates to the techniques of illuminators.
One thing seems certain: Jan’s earliest training was not as an oil painter. That had to wait until 1583, when he moved to Antwerp and went to work with Pieter Goetkint, “at whose house,” Van Mander notes, “were many handsome works.” By this he means that Goetkint was an art dealer and, perhaps, that this was an important part of Jan’s experience with him. Jan could have been employed making copies of originals that passed through the dealer’s hands, and he may have continued this work with Antoon Goetkint, who continued the family enterprise after his brother’s death.
Maintaining the business cannot have been easy, for the 1580s were a turbulent time in Antwerp. Caught at the center of the Revolt of the Netherlands, the city had been sacked by Spanish troops in 1576, after which it allied with the rebels and became the capital of the resistance to Spain. That was its status when Jan moved there. Within a year of his arrival the Spanish began laying siege to the city, and Antwerp fell to their commander, Alessandro Farnese, after nearly a year of suffering. Over the following years it experienced further depopulation as Protestants who refused to convert to Catholicism were forced to emigrate to more hospitable locations. Jan remained through Antwerp’s worst times and somehow supported himself as a painter.
Eventually, though, Jan left Antwerp, traveling first to Cologne and then probably to Frankenthal. From there he continued southward and by 1590 was living and working in the city of Naples. Most Netherlandish artists making their Italian voyage had Rome as their goal: it was the place to go for painters eager to absorb the glorious culture of antiquity and the most novel aspects of modernity. Naples, though, was actually a much larger city than Rome. Its population, at nearly three hundred thousand, was thrice that of Antwerp in its heyday. But unlike Antwerp, Naples lacked a strong indigenous artistic tradition. It was therefore a reasonable destination for an artist seeking not instruction but employment. Other Flemish painters were active there at the time of Brueghel’s sojourn, producing sometimes painfully bad works for a less discerning local public. Wenceslas Coebergher, who would later become a respected architect and engineer in the Netherlands, executed an altarpiece for a Neapolitan church in the same year that Jan was documented there, and Hendrick Goltzius visited the city a year later.
It must also have been important to Jan that his father, on his trip to Italy thirty-five years earlier, had traveled to Naples. Perhaps there were still family connections to potential patrons there. In any event, the first record of Jan in Italy, from June of 1590, documents his payment for work done for the most illustrious Signor Abbot Don Francesco Caracciolo. For him, Jan has been painting a copper plate for use as the face of a clock. Since this is noted as the final payment, Jan must already have been in Naples for some time. The nature of this commission suggests that Brueghel made a living doing decorative work in the applied arts, which would explain the lack of any firmly attributable early paintings by his hand. Later Italian painters would design clock faces with allegories of time or of the seasons, but the sort of imagery Jan was painting in 1590 remains unknown.
Much more, though, is known about the most illustrious abbot Don Francesco Caracciolo, today one of the patron saints of Naples. This young nobleman, born Ascanio Caracciolo, was just a few years older than Jan Brueghel. In 1585 he had moved to Naples, where he studied for the priesthood. Shortly after his ordination in 1587 he joined with the slightly older Augustine Ardorno to form a new religious order, the Minor Clerks Regular. The order was approved by Sixtus V, and in April 1589 the founders took their vows, Ascanio additionally changing his name to Francesco.
Caracciolo did a lot of traveling on the order’s business: in June of 1590, when the payment was made to Brueghel, he had just returned from Spain. On a later trip, he would establish the Foundation of St. Joseph at Alcalá for the teaching of science. The Minor Clerks also instituted hermitages for men who desired lives of quiet rural contemplation. The pursuit of a hermit’s life and the study of science were common for churchmen of the 1590s, and both characterized the men Brueghel would soon work for in Rome. When Brueghel left Naples for Rome, he may have had connections to sources of patronage there provided by the noble abbot and his network.
In 1593 Jan scrawled his name on a wall in the Catacombs of Domitilla. He had been in the Eternal City since at least the year before, when he had inscribed on the back of another artist’s drawing, “Hans brueghel in Rooma [sic] 1592.” He thus probably arrived in Rome in the same year as Caravaggio, with whom he would share several patrons. The three years Brueghel spent there were enormously important for his career: working for a solid base of powerful patrons, he invented a new manner of history painting, exploring subjects that he would repeat and refine for years to come. At the same time, he maintained a sideline in landscapes that he could sell on the open market.
The key players in Jan’s Roman career were a close-knit group of young churchmen. All were committed to the relatively new Roman interest in collecting paintings and were, to varying degrees, interested in the natural sciences and a “naturalistic” aesthetic as well. One, Egidio Colonna, had connections in Naples, where his family worked for the Spanish crown, and might have been Brueghel’s original link to the Roman circle. He was so interested in Northern art that his collection in 1595 contained little else. His paintings included some of the earliest works securely attributable to Brueghel: two scenes from classical mythology (Orpheus Sings for Pluto and Proserpina and Aeneas and Sibyl in the Underworld), two New Testament narratives (the Adoration of the Magi and Christ in Limbo), and a picture of a hermit saint. All are on copper plates measuring about 25 × 35 centimeters and can be dated to about 1594. The five paintings are still in the Palazzo Colonna in Rome, meaning that the collections of two of Brueghel’s five documented Italian patrons remain intact today in public museums. The second of these is the collection of Cardinal Federico Borromeo.
The Colonna were related by marriage to the Borromeo family, and during part of his time in Rome, Borromeo lived in an apartment at the Palazzo Colonna. It was natural that he should have seen the new interesting works in Egidio’s collection. But his taste in art was rather different: he would never acquire a mythological piece from Jan, and only a few biblical histories. Both men bought hell scenes, but while this was a major interest for Colonna, it was minor for Borromeo. He would even send his hell painting back to Brueghel a decade later with instructions to make changes that would bring it closer to his standards (fig. 7). The opposite was true of landscapes with a hermit’s retreat: these Borromeo would order in abundance, though Colonna had only one (fig. 8). Borromeo’s broader interest in aestheticized images of the natural world extended to works by Italian artists as well: Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit still hangs along with Jan’s works in the museum that Borromeo founded.
<insert figs. 7 & 8 about here>
Borromeo was an important figure in the Roman art scene. Artists knew and respected him: in 1593 he had become the first “cardinal protector” of the Roman Accademia di San Luca, with the papal brief of encouraging adherence to Counter-Reformation standards of art. Beyond the Colonna family he had other friends who were major collectors, and they too acquired works from Jan Brueghel. One of these was the powerful cardinal Benedetto Giustiniani. To art historians Benedetto has often stood in the shadow of his younger brother, Vincenzo, a trendsetter in Baroque patronage. Though Benedetto too owned several paintings by Caravaggio, Vincenzo was one of that master’s greatest supporters. As a writer of essays on painting, sculpture, and architecture, Vincenzo took a notoriously poor view of incidental genres like landscape: he believed in the hierarchy of genres and in standards still recognized today as characterizing the Baroque. Benedetto, though more eclectic in his tastes, was likewise not interested in Jan as a landscape artist: the six or seven Brueghels listed in his 1601 inventory were all histories, some with landscape settings but others with hell and fire, as in Egidio Colonna’s collection. They included a Last Judgment and a Deluge, a Paradise and a Hell, an Adoration and a Burning of Troy, with possibly a second version of the last subject. All were framed in ebony, and he seems to have hung them as pairs, though the subjects are sometimes complementary and sometimes not.
Brueghel’s last major Roman buyer, another member of Borromeo’s circle and his successor as cardinal protector of the accademia, was Caravaggio’s second great patron: Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte. His eclectic interests included botany, geography, and alchemy—his brother Guidobaldo was a scientist—and he had a particular fascination with clocks, employing a resident orologgario who made clocks for Borromeo as well. Given Jan’s employment record in Naples, clock painting was another avenue by which he could have entered these circles. Del Monte also had a huge art collection. His postmortem inventory (1627) included seven hundred works, and others had been removed before the inventory was taken. Pictures by Jan Brueghel included an Orpheus and Eurydice, two versions of the Temptation of Saint Anthony, two landscapes and a seascape with ships, a Crucifixion, a Saint John the Evangelist, and an allegory described as Woman with an Arrow. It is possible that del Monte owned as many as seventeen Brueghels, but even counting only the nine attributed in the inventory, he was still the artist’s most avid buyer during his time in Rome. Moreover, del Monte owned quite a few landscapes by artists other than Brueghel, as well as—a real prize—a seascape by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. In fact, two of his pictures by Jan dovetail rather well with the painting by his father—the seascape with ships and the Vision of Saint John on Patmos (fig. 9). Dated 1593, the latter is one of Jan’s earliest known works. Perhaps del Monte commissioned this and the seascape to accompany the painting he owned by the young artist’s father. It is in any event clear that, unlike Brueghel’s other early patrons, he valued the landscape aspect of Brueghel’s work.
<insert fig. 9 about here>
In Rome, then, Brueghel developed a repertoire of themes that would interest a particular group of influential patrons, and painted them at a consistent size and on the same support. He showed no interest in trying his hand at large-scale work and therefore was not in competition with local painters for public commissions, as Rubens would be a decade later. Jan chose to paint subjects from mythology, the Old and New Testaments, and the lives of select saints. Occasionally his patrons purchased landscapes and seascapes from him, but these generally included either the figure of a saint or some narrative element: for instance, the painting that has the best probability of being del Monte’s seascape actually shows the sacrifice of Jonah (fig. 10). Remarkably, nearly every painting listed in the inventories of Jan’s Roman buyers can be at least tentatively identified today—many remaining in Italian collections—and, conversely, almost every subject of an existing painting by Brueghel from his Roman years can be identified in one of these inventories. The circuit is remarkably tight.
<insert fig. 10 about here>
It seems likely that Brueghel was also working for the open market. A number of landscapes, mostly on copper and conforming to Jan’s “ordinary” dimensions but some even smaller and others larger and on panel, belong to this period of his career. A few were executed in collaboration with the German painter Hans Rottenhammer, trial efforts at a practice at which Brueghel would later become adept. Most of the independent landscapes have not stayed in Italy, many are replications of a few basic designs, and only one is signed and dated, all of which suggests that they were not done for some unknown fifth major patron but for anonymous buyers. Perhaps Cavaliere d’Arpino acted as a middleman for these works; the Roman painter-dealer, who had also been in Naples when Brueghel was there, owned at least one and possibly several pictures by Brueghel when his goods were confiscated in 1607. Jan was also active as a print designer in these years, drawing landscapes to be engraved by fellow expatriates, including Aegidius Sadeler and his future brother-in-law Pieter de Jode.
Indeed, Brueghel’s early drawings would suggest that landscape was his greatest interest at this period. He had brought landscape drawings by his father along with him to Italy, made copies of them himself, and allowed his compatriot Paul Bril to study them, while Bril in turn shared his stash of drawings from the estate of his brother, Matthijs. Brueghel recorded views of Naples as well as Rome, sketched many of Rome’s great ruins, and did nature studies. These records of visual experience provided a storehouse of motifs to which he would return in later years, but the early landscape paintings rarely relate directly to the drawings, apart from some forest scenes that use not his own but his father’s material. Brueghel was, in other words, working at two sorts of landscapes at once: he was storing up directly observed Italian motifs for future use and painting imagined forests for the current market.
Although Jan’s landscapes evidently had some success, the Roman art market was not highly developed in the 1590s, and painters of ambition, like Brueghel, usually tried to work for a specific patron. Especially younger artists, like Caravaggio or Brueghel, relied on the favor of a protector, to whose house they would “belong,” though their services could be loaned to other connoisseurs favored by their patron. Although not Brueghel’s biggest buyer in those early years, Federico Borromeo may have held that position. He was the glue that bound together a group of men who belonged to different political factions but shared intellectual and artistic interests: Breughel’s art became itself an element in that social bonding. And it was with Borromeo that Brueghel left Rome in the autumn of 1595, traveling to Milan, where his patron had just been appointed archbishop.
Milan held Brueghel only briefly, from October of 1595 to the summer of 1596. Indeed, Borromeo’s letter of recommendation to the bishop of Antwerp, describing Jan as an upright and highly principled man, is dated 1595; this suggests that when Jan left Rome, he intended to continue to Antwerp, and that Milan was just a winter stopover. During that winter Jan sold at least one work to an unknown local buyer, a work that was later used as an ex voto in the cathedral. Beyond that, he lived as a member of Borromeo’s household and began to paint for him a group of landscapes with hermits, most of them based on prints by Jan and Raphael Sadeler after Marten de Vos.
Brueghel’s career in Italy was on an upward curve in the mid-1590s, so it is hard to understand why, in the autumn of 1595, he should have begun the journey back to his native land. Rubens’s return from Italy in the winter of 1608–9 makes so much more sense: his success in Italy had been mixed, his home town was about to host the signing of the Twelve Years’ Truce, its art market was picking up, and an appointment to the court of Albert and Isabella loomed. In contrast, the prospects when Brueghel arrived in Antwerp over a decade earlier were decidedly inauspicious. The economy was in tatters, and in 1596 Philip II declared the Spanish crown bankrupt yet again, leaving his armies in the Netherlands unpaid and restless. Archduke Albert had arrived in Brussels in February of that year to head the government of the Spanish Netherlands. But his older brother Ernst had died in 1595 after scarcely more than a year in that role; there was no reason to suppose that lasting stability had arrived along with Albert, although such proved to be the case. In any event, by early August 1596 Jan was in Antwerp, standing as godfather at the baptism of his nephew Jan, son of his older brother, Pieter. Pieter’s family had grown with alarming rapidity during the previous years, putting pressure on his finances: he seems to have run up debt and taken out several loans and was trying to raise money by mortgaging his inheritance. Perhaps his younger brother came home to give him some help out of these difficulties.
In his first years back in Antwerp, Jan made several moves that cemented his place within his profession and in local society. Most obviously, he joined the St. Luke’s painters’ guild in 1597, and only four years later, in 1601, he was acting as its deacon, a position he held again the following year. In 1599 he married Isabella (Elizabeth) de Jode. She was the well-to-do orphaned daughter of Gerard de Jode, who had been an art dealer, cartographer, engraver, and publisher. Her sister was married to Jan Snellinck, a painter, tapestry designer, and successful art dealer, who was a distant cousin of the Brueghels as well. The De Jodes, Snellincks, and Brueghels thus became thickly interconnected clans, and over the following years they would often serve as witnesses or godparents for one another’s family members. Jan had become integrated into a strong professional network.
Also important was a second organization Jan joined in the late 1590s: the Brotherhood of Saints Peter and Paul, also known as the Romanists. Founded in 1572, this select group of twenty-five travelers met once a year, in principle to discuss their journeys to Rome. They enjoyed lavish meals at the Fugger mansion and other excellent venues: this was the appropriate style for their members, who were from the aristocracy, the higher clergy, the magistracy, and the upper middle class. The bishop of Antwerp had joined in 1597, as had the brotherhood’s first painter, Otto van Veen; Brueghel came in as the second painter in 1599. Over the following decade other artists joined, including those with whom Jan would have the closest bonds of work and of friendship: Hendrick van Balen in 1605, Rubens in 1609 (the year in which Jan was deacon), Sebastian Vrancx in 1610, and Frans Snyders in 1619. But the Romanists also offered Jan the opportunity to establish bonds with men well above his social class. For instance, Paulus van Halmale, member of one of Antwerp’s most powerful and ancient patrician families, stood as coguardian of Jan’s younger children at the time of his death, along with Rubens, Van Balen, and Cornelis Schut, an important patron. All four men knew one another through the Romanists: Schut had joined in the same year as Brueghel. All painters had the opportunity through the St. Luke’s Guild to hobnob with connoisseurs, who could join the guild as “lovers of art,” but the Romanists gave Brueghel access to an expanded and elevated circle of potential patrons.
Jan may also have drawn upon his Roman connections to find buyers at home in Antwerp. The Italian Giacomo Ghisberti is the earliest documented Antwerp owner of one of his works, and another early owner—of a clavicymbal, surely painted on commission—is Emmanuel Ximinez, a Portuguese merchant with connections to the Borromeo family. Jan was also well placed in a circle of art dealers, although few of his works appear in their inventories. While no evidence confirms that Jan himself dealt in other artists’ paintings, he does seem to have acted as an agent on occasion, acquiring prints for Borromeo or selling to the city of Antwerp an ebony-and-bronze crucifix by Flemish expatriate sculptor Giovanni da Bologna. He also began early on to cultivate new sources of patronage among the international aristocracy, receiving a commission in 1599 to paint an Assumption of the Virgin for Maria of Bavaria in Graz: her agent had assured her that Brueghel was “one of the three best masters of this time” and the very best in small figures.
Jan had been accustomed in Italy to a system where powerful patrons buffered their chosen artists from the vagaries of the market. Finding one in the Netherlands was not simple. When Jan arrived, the court in Brussels was not sufficiently settled to bestow favor upon a young artist, the art-loving burghers of Antwerp were not in the habit of acting as benefactors, and the local aristocracy were not great collectors at all, except for their galleries of family portraits. The signal exception to this last rule was Charles, duc de Croÿ, a man of extraordinary wealth and refined artistic taste. I suggest in chapter 3 that he did eventually commission one work from Brueghel, but although he had his court artists, Croÿ was not a frequent buyer of modern artworks, and Brueghel cannot have counted on his patronage.
At some point Jan did find himself a local Maecenas, a patron who was so enthusiastic about his paintings that he purchased them in great quantity. At his death, in 1621, the educated humanist Nicolaas Cornelis Cheeus owned at least twenty-five works executed fully or partially by Brueghel, of which at least one had been directly commissioned at considerable expense (fig. 11). Otherwise, Antwerp inventories to about thirty years after Jan’s death, hence of people who may have purchased from him in his lifetime, rarely record more than one or two Brueghels. Certainly it was not as in Rome, where a few people bought many expensive works by his hand. Also not as it had been in Rome was the subject matter that Jan’s Antwerp buyers favored. The vast majority of his works that entered collections there were landscapes (41), or landscapes by Momper into which Jan had painted figures (21). Of the works by Jan in Antwerp inventories ten depict flower bouquets, a subject that had enjoyed surprisingly early local popularity: this was a trend Jan followed, not one he set, and in fact his uncle had been a flower painter in the previous generation. Inventories also list a dozen paintings done collaboratively with his local costar, Rubens. But Jan’s own history paintings, allegories, and genre scenes were not popular here, and nobody owned a scene from classical mythology executed entirely by Jan himself. The patterns of purchase of Brueghel’s works roughly reflect the overall taste of early seventeenth-century Antwerp, which was dramatically different from that of Rome in the 1590s.
<insert fig. 11 about here>
But Jan’s output itself reflects a much less abrupt change. He continued to paint mythologies and hell scenes for years after he returned to Antwerp, and developed a whole new line in allegories. I would suggest that these works were intended for export, that he maintained ties to Italy and shipped to agents there subjects he knew would fit that market. As noted above, he renewed his relationship with Borromeo in 1605, but the cardinal was not his only Italian buyer. Ercole Bianchi, Borromeo’s secretary, was both acquiring paintings himself—mostly landscapes for his own collection—and facilitating the sale of Jan’s works to several other parties in Milan. There is good evidence that Jan’s paintings were still flowing into Roman collections as well. These pictures done for export continued to be executed on copper plates, which are stable and easy to transport. Italy was not the only foreign market eager for his paintings either: collectors in the Dutch Republic purchased valuable items by Jan Brueghel, and it is possible that Duke Maximilian I of Bavaria became an occasional patron in the first decade of the new century.
Things were going well for Brueghel. In 1601 he acquired citizenship of the city of Antwerp and became deacon of the St. Luke’s Guild, sharing the post the following year with Otto van Veen. Then, in 1603, his young wife died, leaving him with two small children, Jan and Paschasia. Tying up her estate necessitated going to Frankfurt, but Jan chose to make that business trip into an eight-month-long international voyage, and in late March of 1604 he left Antwerp for the Dutch Republic. From there he continued first to Frankfurt and then to Prague, where, in the collection of Rudolf II, he saw the original Dürer drawings after which he made remarkable painted copies (fig. 12).
<insert fig. 12 about here>
Jan would travel little after his visit to Prague. Together with Rubens and Van Balen, he did make one more major journey, however, to Haarlem, Leiden, and probably other cities of the Dutch Republic in 1612. But the Prague trip of 1604 was something of a turning point in Jan’s career. Just after it he shifted to a new method of production (described in the next section), involving the creation of pattern paintings, which could be reproduced in multiple variants. This was also when he added flower bouquets to his expansive repertoire of imagery, rapidly becoming a famed expert in that type of work. Other life changes occurred at the same time: he bought a fine new house, The Mermaid, in the Lange Nieuwstraat, and he remarried in 1605, taking as his new wife Katharine van Marienburg, with whom he would eventually have eight more children. In the same year he began writing again to Borromeo after nearly a decade’s silence and working for Albert and Isabella’s court in Brussels. The causal sequence here remains unknown: whether Prague reminded Jan that his type of art could find an audience among the international noble elite, whether new financial and familial obligations pushed him to expand his marketing base, or whether Jan’s new connection to Rudolf suddenly made him attractive to Rudolf’s brother Albert. But the following decade would be marked by steady work for both Borromeo and Brussels.
Thanks to the survival of Brueghel’s correspondence and the foundation of the Ambrosiana, it is easy to identify the works executed in Antwerp and shipped to Milan. And Borromeo’s own writings on art explain what he appreciated about these works: their evocation of the wonders of God’s created world, marvelously replicated and available for contemplation. Borromeo’s conception of nature held that closeness to God could best be achieved by admiring and praising the glories of creation, and in a busy life or in winter months, paintings allowed for prolonged spiritual exercise. The early hermit scenes had already satisfied this need, and most of the pictures Borromeo now purchased from Jan at long distance could equally be used for joyful meditation on nature: the Four Elements series, two paintings of floral bouquets, and two works in which an image of the Madonna and Child is surrounded by a garland of flowers. These are the paintings by Brueghel that Borromeo would praise most fulsomely in his Musaeum (1625), a guide to the works with which he endowed the Ambrosiana. He did, however, also purchase different sorts of images from Brueghel: a depiction of Daniel in the Lions’ Den and several minute oval paintings with winter landscapes or religious histories. Most of the works for Borromeo were produced in the space of a few years, from 1605 to 1610.
These same years were also marked by intense work for the archdukes. By 1606 Albert and Isabella had established a group of artists associated with their court. Several were Jan’s personal associates: Otto van Veen, whom he knew from the Romanists and as his codeacon at the St. Luke’s guild, and his cousin Jan Snellinck. He was evidently also acquainted with nonartist members of the court, who helped him argue in 1606 for special dispensation from export duties on his paintings. Early in the same year he was, he reported to Borromeo, spending time in the court gardens studying flowers for his still-life painting. In his correspondence over the following years Jan frequently mentions multi-item commissions from Brussels: usually he uses these as an excuse for his delinquency with jobs for Borromeo. The work he describes includes four paintings done in 1609, eleven particularly complicated paintings in 1610, and no less than thirty-eight works “di miniatura . . . di mia mano propria” in 1619, the year in which he moved to a still more elegant home, on the Arenbergstraat. The payments for some of his court commissions were considerable: for instance, he was paid fl. 3,625 in August 1610, though for what remains unclear.
It is impossible to reconstruct with any accuracy the archducal collections, spread between several residences in their lifetimes and later dispersed to relatives or destroyed by fires. None of the commissions Jan enumerates in his letters can be firmly identified with surviving works known to have been executed for the archducal couple or with ones that appear in their fragmentary inventories. However, the paintings Brueghel did for them certainly included portraits, landscapes, and peasant genre scenes. Many combined two or three of those genres in ways that pictorialized the couple’s dedication to the common people of the Netherlands and their pride in their residences and estates. Some works were large and on canvas, others minuscule and on copper (figs. 13a, 13b). Brueghel collaborated with court artist Hendrick de Clerck and later with Rubens on mythological scenes for the archdukes; they also evidently appreciated his religious histories and his floral still lifes. Albert was a particular fan of Jan, along with Rubens and Van Veen: a contemporary biographer reported that in his free time Albert “not infrequently summoned them to himself and listened to them with honest pleasure, but in private.”
<insert fig. 13 about here>
Soon after Rubens received the title of court painter in 1609, Jan began lobbying for special privileges as well, particularly freedom from city taxes and guard duties. This was a normal request for a painter who had been successful with Albert and Isabella, and he duly received the privileges he wanted in 1613, much to the dismay of the Antwerp magistrates who had objected to being deprived of the taxes such a wealthy citizen should be paying. Like most artists who worked for the court, Brueghel was never given an official post there, but his distance from Brussels—like that which Rubens cultivated in his own way—served him well. Because the archdukes’ enthusiasm for his work was so widely known, the city of Antwerp gave them several costly gifts of his pictures. Brueghel could capitalize on his identity as an Antwerp artist even when painting for the archdukes.
I have only recounted the main documented events in Jan’s life up to about 1615, when he was in his mid-forties and at the peak of his career. By then he had cultivated a broad array of patrons across the social spectrum and across the length and breadth of Europe. The buyers of his works were as diverse as the works themselves—cardinals and burghers, humanists and theologians, royalty, even a future saint. Sometimes a particular type of work attracted a particular patron; other buyers had a general appreciation for Jan’s aesthetic and could be persuaded to purchase a variety of pictures; indeed, the more Jan varied his repertoire through a spectrum of imagery, from histories and landscapes to genre scenes, allegories, and still lifes, the more works he could sell.
Probably because Brueghel’s patrons are so well known and because they were often important, articulate individuals, the few interpretive studies of Jan Brueghel have tended to explain his work with reference to attitudes and beliefs attributed to one patron or group of buyers. From this point of view, his art comes to embody a philosophy expounded in texts written by or read by people who purchased his paintings. In fact, Jan Brueghel’s oeuvre, unwieldy in its magnitude and absurdly diverse in its content, had the ability to say many things to many people. What gives coherence to his works is not a single philosophy that they articulate but the way in which they were made and the kinds of aesthetic experiences they evoke.
<1> Works and Habits of Working
At the beginning of this chapter I suggested that it was Brueghel’s failure to fit art history’s ideas of the Baroque that had lead to his marginalization in the canon. But another reason scholars do not deal much with Brueghel must be that his oeuvre is so uniquely, impossibly messy. How to reconcile the flower painter with the painter of hell scenes, the maker of tiny landscapes with the great allegorist, Rubens’s sometime collaborator with Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s sometime copyist? Thousands of pictures have a claim to be associated, in some way, with Jan Brueghel, and more appear on the art market all the time. Add to this the fact that he and his brother, Pieter the Younger, shared to some degree the studio estate of their father and that Jan’s son, also named Jan Brueghel, was trained by his father and made a career out of repeating his father’s compositions. The result is that there is no stable corpus of paintings on which all can agree, and this is to say nothing of Jan’s drawings, which nobody has systematically investigated. The arguments I make below are based on my own database of paintings that I believe to have been executed by Jan and his collaborators. Jan dated a high proportion of his pictures, but for reasons that become clear below, this does not always help in dating the undated works. I have rejected many later landscapes, while adding a significant number of early history paintings, so that she shape of Jan’s oeuvre as I see it is quite different from what Klaus Ertz presents in his published catalogues.
Particularly difficult to handle are the many paintings that are not autograph but seem to have been produced within Jan’s orbit, probably in his studio. The matter of Jan’s studio has muddled any understanding of his work, for Ertz flatly denies that Jan employed studio assistants: any work that emerged from his studio was his own autograph product. This idea, however, is simply not tenable. While Brueghel was an efficient painter who had ways of maintaining a steady output at a high level of excellence, his method of painting was laborious and time-consuming. To produce hundreds of autograph works and hundreds more related pictures, he needed help, and it is well documented that he had that help.
In what follows, I use evidence from paintings and documents to sketch the broad outlines of Brueghel’s production, pointing out basic trends and consistencies in his work. I also try to suggest how his studio operated, what the strength and limitations of his authorial presence there were, and how this varied depending on the stage of his career and on the type of image being produced. More study is needed on the process and production of almost every individual work or group of works by Brueghel. My hope here is to lay out the parameters for future investigation and to point to how the basic materials of that investigation might be interpreted. I argue that to think of Jan Brueghel as a lone figure churning out huge numbers of pictures, one after another, with an orderly stylistic development is utterly wrongheaded. He was the center of a dense web of workers—hired hands, apprentices, and collaborators—who drew constantly upon a rich archive of drawn, printed, and painted materials in their production of new paintings.
Who, then, was at work in Jan Brueghel’s studio, what materials were assembled there for the composition of pictures, and who got to use them? Two artists can confidently be associated with the studio: Daniel Seghers and Jan Brueghel the Younger. Seghers is the only painter who ever formally apprenticed with Jan, as registered with the guild in 1611. This stands in sharp contrast to his brother, Pieter the Younger, who regularly took on apprentices, or to Hendrick van Balen, who in 1609 alone registered Heynrick Ingelants, Gilliam Neeffs, Fernande Schuermans, Francoys Denteer, and Johannes Driescheren, as well as the famous Anthony van Dyck. The records speak of two different ways of running a studio. Van Balen and Pieter Brueghel were teachers and had ways of using the talents, however minimal, of whoever wanted to study with them. Sometimes they landed a great artist, but not often. Jan, on the other hand, only took on a learner when that person had an exceptional talent he could immediately use. Seghers would become an outstanding painter of floral still lifes; Jan accepted him as an apprentice at a point when he was expanding his own repertoire in that genre and could use a young man of high promise. Jan’s eldest son, born in 1601, would have started his training at around age ten, thus at the same time that Seghers arrived. The younger Brueghel probably became a productive member of the studio within a few years, having learned to paint so that his handling would be nearly indistinguishable from his father’s. This was the usual way of things in seventeenth-century Antwerp and simply shows that Jan, unlike Rubens, who did not train his own sons, thought of himself and his family in terms of local craft traditions.
Like Rubens, though, Jan must have hired professional painters to assist him in his work, men whose talents he could test and whom he did not need to train. We can pinpoint a few of these. A painter named Michiel, living with Jan Brueghel, paid fl. 36 in guild dues in 1611. When Jan’s son took over the studio after his father’s death, in 1625, he immediately began paying wages to two men working there: an Elias Voet and S. de Momper. It is likely that they had been his father’s steady help. By 1628 Jan Junior was paying three more assistants, suggesting that the shop habitually employed a sizable staff. Assistants had helped to execute his father’s “autograph” pictures, and those familiar with the workshop’s practice must have known that, because in his letters to Bianchi Jan the Elder specifies when he has not been assisted in the execution of a particular picture. The assistants also painted works on their own: Jan explains to Bianchi a delay in providing paintings for Borromeo by saying he was busy preparing “many paintings by my assistants to send them to the fair in Paris.” These were not the sorts of paintings Brueghel was sending to the cardinal or even to Bianchi for sale to other refined Milanese collectors; they were less expensive items for ordinary buyers, people who went to the Paris fair—a general free market—to find a nice picture to decorate their front room.
I will return to what sorts of paintings Jan’s assistants were producing for the broad art market. But first I would like to consider the surviving evidence for what materials were available to Jan’s workshop for the production of pictures. By “materials” I refer to visual resources to which a painter—including Jan himself—could resort for ideas and formulae in developing a composition. Art historians can be reticent about the common use of such resources, especially by “great” artists, and instead retain the ideal of the single unique image born whole in the mind of the genius and made manifest by his brush. But there can be few painters for whom such a model is less relevant than Jan Brueghel.
In his early years as a history painter, Brueghel made liberal use of printed sources. Although he sometimes worked closely after a single print, more often he used selected imagery from an engraving and combined it with his own invention: for instance, a scene of whale hunting by Philip Galle after Hans Bol forms, somewhat improbably, the setting for John’s vision on Patmos (fig. 9). Jan’s early hell scenes draw liberally upon details of his own father’s Virtues and Sins series. Working from prints like this was standard practice for Northern artists painting on a small scale in Italy. From a theoretical standpoint it was an atrocity: using prints as a crutch confirmed a painter’s ineptitude. Patrons, however, did not necessarily see things in this light. Borromeo owned the very prints after Marten de Vos that Brueghel adapted for his hermit scenes; to him, the translation of the prints into painted images—the alteration of scale, addition of color, and greater emphasis on the natural setting—clearly produced a special aesthetic value. It is likely that Jan owned a set of these engravings as well. Working from prints also facilitated Brueghel’s early forays into collaborative painting. In their 1595 Allegory of Life, for instance, he and Rottenhammer freely reinterpreted imagery from a single famous print by Giorgio Ghisi (fig. 14). That base image provided a shared framework upon which each painter could elaborate in turn.
<insert fig. 14 about here>
In adapting Borromeo’s print collection to paintings, Brueghel also drew upon a second storehouse of visual motifs: his collection of drawings. Already in Italy he had used drawings by his father and also by other Antwerp artists of his father’s generation. To these he had added drawings of his own: nature studies, drawings of ruins, copies after details of works by Italian masters that impressed him as perfect solutions to figural problems. Many of these early drawings survive, and his paintings imply that more once existed. For instance, Jan was well acquainted with the white horse from Titian’s Adoration of the Magi, owned by his patron Cardinal Borromeo. This was the cardinal’s favorite painting in his own collection, and the white horse merited special mention in his Musaeum. In a letter to Bianchi, Jan mentions that artists often copied after Titian’s masterpiece, and evidently he was one of them, for a cousin of that horse appears in two of his own pictures from 1600: an Adoration of the Magi and, in reverse, an Orpheus Playing for the Animals (fig. 15). This sort of flipping of a drawing from picture to picture—figures, animals, groups—was common in Jan’s studio, and a basic horse drawing of some sort must have existed. Then, just as Jan shared his cache of Pieter Bruegel landscape drawings with Paul Bril, so Hans Rottenhammer shared figure drawings with him, including copies from paintings to which Jan had no access. Thus, without ever traveling to Venice, Jan was able to adapt a group of women Tintoretto had recently painted at the Scuola di San Rocco.
<insert fig. 15 about here>
Like Rubens, Jan also kept a store of oil sketches for use in producing pictures. A few still exist, like the panel filled with studies of dogs now in Vienna (fig. 16). It is perhaps identical with the “largish panel with sketches of dogs” that was in his daughter’s possession in 1641, along with another twenty-nine sketches on panel “of various things.” All the surviving oil sketches are of individual animals, that is, single figures available to be used in new arrangements in paintings. The many lost panels could have contained other sorts of imagery that Jan would study from life and repeat in numerous pictures, like the pieces of costly armor that appear in his allegories of fire or histories of Vulcan’s forge. Motifs were also gathered in drawn form, including the human figures, with their horses and carts and boats, that would populate his country roads and rivers (fig. 17). Individual elements from such drawings might be extracted for use in paintings over a period of many years.
<insert figs. 16 & 17 about here>
Drawing is the medium in which Jan worked out figure groupings and compositions. Usually the relationship of drawings to paintings is somewhat oblique: rather than full compositional plans, they register an idea that was differently framed in painted form, a motif that became one part of a larger composition, or the spatial coordinates within which a fuller image could be developed. One of the most direct relationships is between a large drawing of a country road and several painted landscapes (figs. 18 and, e.g., 19). Yet almost nothing is actually identical between drawing and paintings apart from the general disposition of road, stream, and woodland. The buildings to the left are different; trees have been shifted around and clearings opened. Most obviously, while the original figures have vanished—they were only being used to gauge scale within this sitting—new ones have appeared, clustered in sociable groups or driving cattle or sitting in wagons. Many look familiar, having traveled along other roadways painted by Jan and his studio.
<insert figs. 18 & 19 about here>
Drawings that interlink with landscapes are relatively common. Drawings for flower imagery can be counted on the fingers of one hand. And for an artist who produced many ambitious history paintings, the lack of related drawings is remarkable. In the few cases where a complete drawing depicts an allegory or a history, there is no directly corresponding painting, as if the drawing represented either a failed interpretation of the subject or an independent work of art. For instance, Brueghel’s drawing of a village street with Saint Martin dividing his cloak, now in Stockholm, bears no relation to the painting of that subject in Prague (figs. 20 and 21). But the drawing is almost the same size as the painting, suggesting that it was an independent collector’s item, unique and yet generated at around the same time as the painting; numerous remaining landscape drawings by Jan, some completely unrelated to any painting, must likewise have been made for collectors (fig. 22).
<insert figs. 20–22 about here>
Jan sometimes made approval drawings; for instance, when he was working on his Daniel in the Lions’ Den, a complex history painting, he sent a group of drawings to Borromeo to make sure the composition would meet with his patron’s approval (fig. 23). The correspondence about these drawings is interesting on several accounts. Multiple drawings are involved, and Jan asks for the drawings back when he is already finishing the painting. This suggests that while he may have sent some compositional plan for approval, he also sent along study drawings for groups of figures and animals, which were his usual tools for assembling a painting. And although he did not intend to produce multiple versions of Borromeo’s painting, he wanted to add the drawings to his store in case he needed this group of soldiers or those women with pails in some unrelated composition. Such partial drawings were a crucial element of his studio’s visual archive. One must have existed for the Prague Saint Martin, for the central figure grouping reappears—on a completely different village street—in a picture that was once on the art market in Munich. The windmill in the background of the Munich painting appears in other landscapes by Brueghel, but not in the original Saint Martin.
<insert fig. 23 around here>
The Munich Saint Martin is typical of work produced in Jan’s studio, using the stock of drawings on hand to assemble a new picture that is related to but does not exactly copy an older picture. Exact copies were certainly made—as was done with the Saint Martin—but variants were more common. Numerous examples can be found in the margins of Jan’s oeuvre, workshop products that repeat only part of an original painting or combine motifs from several paintings. Sometimes the motifs are from related works: for instance, variants of Aeneas and Sibyl in the Underworld recombine elements from two autograph versions. This is unsurprising, for evidence suggests that drawings within the workshop were bundled and categorized around specific subjects so that they could be looked up and reused efficiently. The testament of Ambrosius Brueghel, Jan’s youngest son, mentions a Crucified Christ painted by his father; attached to it is a wooden box “with all the drawings and sketches lying in it.” Ambrosius, a painter himself, was probably preserving a legacy from his father in the workshop-ready form in which he had inherited it.
In other cases, workshop pictures use elements that Jan had devised for scenes with completely different subjects, so that genresque figures from history paintings meander down ordinary village streets. Motifs are frequently flipped between pictures: the windmill in the Saint Martin variant appears in reverse in several other landscape paintings. Scale may also change. Copies are sometimes identical in size, but in other cases they vary greatly, so that compositions executed in miniature scale are repeated in quite large variants. All of this is in striking contrast to the way production operated in the workshop of his brother, Pieter the Younger. There, full compositions were repeated as exactly as possible and much the same scale. The rooms full of uncannily identical paintings at the Pieter Brueghel exhibition would never be repeated at a show of Jan Brueghel’s work. Jan’s workshop employed more elaborate and flexible techniques of replication and recombination, in his own autograph compositions and in pictures produced by his paid assistants. In all cases drawings must have been used and eventually consumed in the process. Thus the most frequently used drawings would be precisely those that are no longer extant.
I have been describing Jan’s practice as if all of his paintings were equally produced in an ongoing process of repetition and variation, but this is by no means the case. Certain compositions were never copied or closely varied, especially the early histories for his Roman patrons. Throughout his career, the very smallest works tend to be unique items, as are the very large late works done on commission for the Habsburgs. Compositions designed in a round or oval shape are not often repeated. Pictures that seem experimental or anomalous are one-offs: his only known portrait, his few vertical compositions, his copies after Dürer, and variants on his father’s paintings. Collaborative works are less likely to exist in multiple versions.
But some collaborative works also exist in a dozen copies and variants, as do many independent paintings. Even early works, even works done for his best patrons, were sometimes copied exactly: the Christ and the Apostles on the Lake of Tiberius of 1595 (fig. 2), in Borromeo’s collection, exists in a copy signed and dated a year later. Egidio Colonna’s Adoration of the Magi was the first of a cluster of variants that would be produced when Jan returned to Antwerp. Evidently Jan brought home with him working drafts of his Italian compositions and started up production in Antwerp based in part on those tried-and-true formulae. The low number and high quality of the versions, though, reflect what must have been Jan’s smaller workshop at the beginning of his career.
Eventually Jan must have begun using a larger staff to produce pictures in greater volume, but it is hard to say exactly when this happened, since his working method meant variants could be produced long after the first effort. A few history pictures from the late 1590s exist in many copies, but some of these could have been executed later. More striking is the increase in what might be called “pattern pictures” starting around 1604. At this stage of his career, at the time of his Prague trip and second marriage, Jan evidently switched production models. Many (though not all) of his landscape paintings from the next ten years exist in half a dozen or more copies and variants. Sometimes there are as many as twenty variants, of all sizes and on various supports, some even shaped differently (a small copper oval versus a large rectangular canvas), some perhaps autograph, others absolutely awful. Likewise, certain collaborative allegorical compositions, though more complicated to execute, were repeated and varied ad infinitum, while others remained singular; and some of the labor-intensive flower paintings also exist in multiple versions.
I think that Jan often worked on several versions of a composition at once, an efficient way of production that would help explain his large autograph output of rather labor-intensive pictures. One painting could then remain in the studio for the assistants’ reference in producing variants, while another was signed, dated, and sold off. It also seems possible that when a new picture was being executed, he began several secondary versions, to be completed by him or by his assistants when demand arose. Jan rarely worked with full underdrawings, but a plate or panel with a complete imprimatura and loosely worked-up contours and shadows, plus drawings for figures or figure groups, would have given the basic material needed to complete the image. The numerous “begun [copper] plates” and “begun panels” that appear in his estate inventory are surely such semifinished works. This would be another way to account for copies and variants, even autograph ones, that were executed years apart. Take, for instance, the listing in Jan’s estate sale of an unfinished “paradise landscape” along with its copy. Jan had not made an original painting of this subject for about a decade before his death. What was languishing in his studio was probably some unfinished secondary version of an earlier work and a tertiary studio work that derived from it.
Ideally, there would be a kind of map that would locate all these works at a greater or lesser distance from Jan himself, for it is often impossible to define how a given work relates to some original by Jan. To some degree both Jan and his assistants must have produced pictures in the same way, generating (moderately) new compositions out of fragmentary studies for old ones. His correspondence with Borromeo indicates that Jan sometimes retouched weak studio pieces and felt that the resulting works could pass as originals, a sentiment Rubens would famously express about his own studio work as well. In every way, then, the concepts of a single “original” and secondary copies are compromised by the workings of Jan’s studio.
Although studio variants, even autograph ones, came in different sizes and media, the trend in the course of Jan’s own works is from copper to panel to occasional canvas and from small size to larger. In his first decade, in Italy and then in Antwerp, the great majority of his works are on copper plates of 25 × 35 centimeters or smaller. In his early years back in Antwerp he painted a handful of quite large works, most of which are versions of his father’s large paintings; in fact, the sizable works of 1598–1600 are the largest pictures he would ever produce independently, barring much later works on canvas commissioned by Albert and Isabella. But these works are exceptions in his general production of those early years.
After 1600 Jan began to work more often on panel, and the average dimensions of his works increase, but averages are deceiving. The larger sizes, especially after 1605, include many collaborative works, first with Van Balen and then with Rubens. Of the independent works, Jan’s flower still lifes are often fairly good sized: rendered at “life scale,” an abundant floral arrangement occupies a substantial panel. But in general, Jan’s works stayed small until the last decade of his life, when he no longer executed many new independent compositions at all.
Excepting again the late large pictures made for the court in Brussels, Jan’s works also maintain a marked consistency in the scale of what is depicted. No matter how large the image, its individual elements are small. Figures do not grow in scale to occupy a greater given space; instead, their number multiplies. Compared to other history painters, even those working on small supports, Jan’s figurative elements are always tiny relative to his working surface. The larger pictures simply contain extraordinary numbers of persons—or flowers or animals or still-life elements. Imagery was built up area by area, with any one section having perhaps several stages of paint application, so that details accumulated gradually until the primary paint layer was hidden under a mass of tiny brushstrokes.
Thus, even when Jan’s support is sizable, its surface is filled with detail to a degree one would expect only in a much smaller picture. Or perhaps “detail” is not exactly the right word: what occupies Jan’s paintings is brushwork. The surfaces of Jan’s best pictures are alive with the tiny yet perfectly visible unblended strokes of a fine, fine brush. Even foreground landscape areas where no object is described are composed of a mass of little daubs. Jan’s preferred support, copper, maintains all of the applied paint on the surface and so accentuates the vivid separateness of each stroke. Individual elements are outlined with the brush; facial features are drawn rather than modeled. The visibility of every touch actually made Jan’s works relatively easy to copy, made his manner imitable by the workshop. Yet because of its intricacy and bravura application, his facture appears unique, even inimitable, a style of picture making that would be identified as Jan’s own. In his work, facture and style can potentially be equivalent.
In contrast to more efficient techniques being developed by other artists in his lifetime, Jan’s manner of painting was slow and labor-intensive. But it also made that labor visible. The brushstrokes index time spent in making, and it was important to Jan that this time be recognized. He emphasizes in his letters how long and with how much care he has worked on a given painting, assuring Bianchi, for instance, that he reserves for Borromeo three summer months of every year—prime working time, with long days and good light—and that in that time he can execute only two paintings. This should not be taken as a report of his actual practice but rather as a claim of value registered in time spent, time that is in turn registered in the finished work by visible facture.
What type of value does the evidence of labor create, though? Jan is not expecting payment by the hour like some lowly workman; his generous compensation is negotiated with Borromeo on the basis of the excellence of his works and the esteem in which his patron holds him. The long working hours, as Jan describes them, are in some sense like those that his contemporary Nicholas Hilliard imagined being spent by the gentleman-amateur, a painter unhurried by crass demands like maximizing production for small marginal benefit. Hilliard’s ideal painter never flags in his efforts, no matter how practiced he is or what degree of natural talent he possesses. “Then this exhortation give I,” writes the English miniaturist, “that he be diligent, yea ever diligent, and put his whole uttermost and best endeavors to exceell all other . . . the most perfect and cuningest must doe the same diligence, or rather more, to effect and perform his worke, than hee did at first in larninge.”
“Diligence” is precisely the descriptor to which Brueghel lays claim for his practice and his products, the hallmark of his art. It is a term that appears frequently in his correspondence—“I will use all diligence,” he tells Borromeo, “in making the [painting of a] procession with acts of devotion.” Equally it is a term Borromeo uses to characterize his favored artist’s work, telling the reader of his Musaeum that Brueghel’s tiny scenes from the Passion, including the Procession, are executed with “extreme diligence . . . a quality for which this artist is famed throughout Europe.” And in his Discorso Vincenzo Giustiniani, brother of Jan’s patron Benedetto, also writes of Jan as a master of diligence.
Diligenza was a term with a lively currency in Italian art literature, used by artists in writing to their patrons and by theorists in describing artistic practice, and that is certainly the context from which Brueghel, like Borromeo, had picked it up. It was a concept with positive, even lofty connotations. A picture executed diligently had been done out of love of art and a higher aspiration to artistic perfection. Diligence was regularly linked to study and intellectual, rather than manual, exercise: planning and calculation for the heroes of Giorgio Vasari’s Lives, observation of nature and conviction in its rendering for Brueghel and Borromeo. Even the least diligent of artists applied diligence when working on a key work for an important patron, like Michelangelo when executing the Doni Tondo. Lucy Cutler has pointed out that diligenza was etymologically linked to ideas of love and devotion, so that when Brueghel labored diligently for the cardinal, he was demonstrating devotion to his patron. That cannot, however, have been what Borromeo thought he was famed for throughout Europe.
Diligence sounds like a rather arid form of praise to modern ears—a diligent scholar, for instance, has double-checked all her footnotes but has no profound insights to offer. Likewise, a diligent artist has used time and labor to compensate for a lack of innate talent, dexterity, or genius. These criticisms of diligence were equally applicable in Brueghel’s day. When Vasari remarks that in Italy Schongauer’s and Dürer’s prints are commended only for their diligent execution, he is making it clear that they are damned with faint praise. Diligence stands, to some extent, as the opposite of a better-known Renaissance cultural value: facility, a quality linked to, although not identical with, sprezzatura. In his Lives of the Artists, Vasari balances diligence and facility by pairing painters characterized by the opposing qualities. He juxtaposes, for example, the Venetians Battista Franco and Tintoretto as excellent but imperfect masters. Diligent Franco’s careful, polished works lack boldness and invention, while Tintoretto is “swift, resolute, fantastic and extravagant” but devotes insufficient diligence to each part of the image. The ideal formula, Vasari implies, must be a combination of facility and diligence, but that seems almost impossible to achieve, because the terms reflect such opposing personal attitudes, working techniques, and visible results.
The visible result of extreme diligence is a highly finished painting, its surfaces polished as smoothly as the cheeks of Bronzino’s Medici princesses. Diligence includes the erasure of labor’s traces. Extreme facility produces a very different surface, one marred by paint strokes that have been applied with apparent haste and inattention and that stand apart from the strict work of descriptive representation. Jan Brueghel’s paintings conform to neither of these models. Despite his internationally famous diligence, his surfaces are never highly finished; indeed, they are remarkably textured. The brushwork, though at a miniature scale, remains free and loose, each mark visibly registering the painter’s command of his art. Jan’s diligence transcends the limitations Vasari had seen in even the best diligent work, because it simultaneously demonstrates the virtuosity of a painter who is not afraid to show the work of his hand.
Although diligence can be an attribute of painters working at a larger scale, it is a quality most often possessed by those who work small. Vasari always remarks on the diligence of his miniature painters, and any panel painter inclined to work at a small scale is also called diligent. An artist who works diligently at a small scale spends a lot of time very, very close to that which he is making. Brueghel, building up form out of minute brushstrokes, worked particularly near to his creations: one technical specialist has suggested that he used a magnifying lens in his work, bringing him to within inches of the surface he was painting. Even before he began that detailed work, Brueghel had applied the ground layer on his copper plates with his bare hands.
If diligenza is a form of love and devotion, Jan’s was a particularly intimate one, its objects generated close to the their maker and always marked by the gestures of their loving creation. His pictures are personalized by the artist’s physically proximate facture as indexed by texture. To the objective diligence of studious scrutiny and representational conviction this adds the subjective registers of temporal duration and bodily intimacy. The paradox of Brueghel’s system of making is that while hundreds upon hundreds of small paintings emerged from his workshop, most having an elusive connection to an individual concept or an autograph execution, the microlanguage of the pictures binds them fundamentally to the physical hand of the artist. Their miniature mastery is an unexpected claim to the survival of individuality and subjectivity through the long, fine labor of painting.
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