Oud Holland

Review of: 'Jan Brueghel: A magnificent draughtsman' (2019)

August 2020

Review of: Teréz Gerszi and Louisa Wood Ruby, Jan Brueghel: A magnificent draughtsman, Kontich [Bai Publishers] 2019 / ‘Jan Brueghel: A magnificent draughtsman’, Snijders&Rockox House, Antwerp, 5 October 2019-26 January 2020

In the Bruegel-year 2019 organised by the Flemish Government in the Flemish region and Brussels, the most remarkable and original exhibition took place in the Snijders&Rockox House in Antwerp.1 For the first time ever, an exhibition was devoted solely to the drawings of Pieter Bruegel’s (1525/30-1569) eldest and most talented son, Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625). Exhibitions that focus exclusively on the drawn oeuvre of Old Masters are still a curiosum, even worldwide.2 Therefore, we owe much to the courageous initiative of the Antwerp museum, which presented 58 drawings by Jan Brueghel and a small selection of comparative paintings, prints and drawings (one by Pieter Bruegel and one by Matthijs Bril) on this special occasion. The show marked the first results of several years of intensive research on Jan Brueghel’s drawings by Teréz Gerszi (former Keeper of Prints and Drawings, Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest) and Louisa Wood Ruby (Head of Research, Frick Art Reference Library, New York). Further investments will ultimately culminate in a catalogue raisonné, accompanied with a website of the artist’s complete drawn oeuvre.3

Both Gerszi and Wood Ruby are scholars of Old Master drawings and have been studying Jan Brueghel’s drawings for a substantial time, from different perspectives and within a broader context of sixteenth and seventeenth-century draughtsmanship. From the 1960s onwards Teréz Gerszi devoted numerous publications on the heritage of Pieter Bruegel in the drawn oeuvres of sixteenth and seventeenth-century landscape artists.Gerszi further made a considerable contribution on the drawings by Jan, in the exhibition ‘Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere – Jan Brueghel der Ältere. Flämische Malerei um 1600. Tradition und Fortschritt’ (1997).Wood Ruby explored his drawn oeuvre mainly on the occasion of her dissertation on Paul Bril’s drawings (1999)and the Jan Brueghel exhibition in Munich (2013), where she focussed on his early years in Italy.7 It is remarkable that Gerszi and Wood Ruby joined forces to study Jan Brueghel’s drawn oeuvre in tandem, since such a collaboration is uncommon among scholars of drawing.

Left: Cover of Jan Brueghel: A magnificent draughtsman
Middle: fig.1 Jan Brueghel, Riverscape near Baasrode (cat. 15b), ca. 1600, pen and brown ink, 19.9 x 31.8 cm, British Museum, London, inv. 1946,0713.148.
Right: fig. 2 Attributed to Jan Brueghel or Paul Bril (after Pieter Bruegel), Mountainous landscape with exotic animals, ca. 1589-96, pen and brown ink, with opaque white over black chalk, 33.5 x 23.1 cm, Harvard Arts Museums/Fogg Museum, Cambridge (MA), inv. 1977.4.

It must be further noted that few scholars have dared to touch upon the repository of hundreds of drawings that have been associated with Jan Brueghel in the past, which consists of very diverse material. Matthias Winner was the first to do so in 1961.8 His findings seem to have largely lasted the test of time. Winner could further develop his ideas on the subject as a member of staff and subsequently director of the Kupferstichkabinett der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin (1963-1977), which resulted in a second article on the same subject.9 In 1975, Winner took on a double ‘pathfinders role’ by co-organising the first exhibition on Pieter Bruegel’s drawings in context ‘Pieter Bruegel d. Ä als Zeichner. Herkunft und Nachfolge’ (1975) accompanied by a still highly valuable catalogue, which included 33 drawings by Jan Brueghel.10 His last extensive contribution concerns an essay in the Brussels exhibition catalogue on the Brueghel dynasty (1980).11

It is truly exceptional that Gerszi and Wood Ruby have had the chance to visit, for the first time, numerous public and private collections around the world during a concentrated period of time (2013-2018), in order to study drawings attributed to Jan Brueghel ‘first hand’. However high-resolution a reproduction, it can still not replace the experience of examining an artwork in person. Together, they were able to examine about 500 drawings in major public and private collections. Additionally, they visited several photo archives. From the nearly 700 drawings the scholars found attributed to Jan Brueghel, they accept 130-140 as autograph works – much less than the 200 drawings mentioned in the catalogue of the monograph exhibition in München (2013).12 

Together with Hildegard van de Velde, curator of the Snijders&Rockox House and coordinator of the exhibition and publication project, Gerszi and Wood Ruby secured impressive loans, with drawings from museums from the European continent as well as the United Kingdom and the United States, and from several private collectors. The venue of the Snijders&Rockox House in Jan Brueghels’ hometown was particularly apt; Antwerp's buitenburgemeester Nicolaes Rockox (1560-1640) was a notorious collector, who must have owned paintings by Jan Brueghel, and the painter Frans Snijders (1597-1657) was Brueghel’s friend and working partner. In the rooms on the ground floor, the exhibition space is quite limited, as a result of which, not all drawings were presented to their best advantage. Sometimes, with two drawings of a considerable size, one above the other, they could not be studied/seen in detail. This problem was largely solved in the continuation of the exhibition in a spacious room on the upper floor. On the occasion of the exhibition, a dozen of paintings by artists from the ‘Brueg(h)el dynasty’, were highlighted in the permanent collection of the museum.13

The exhibition was arranged around a large group of drawings the curators consider as autograph. They were presented in six thematic, roughly chronological sections: Jan Brueghel in Italy (ca. 1588-1596); Riverscapes and village scenes (ca. 1600-1623); Study sheets (after 1600-1623); On the road (ca. 1604-ca. 1620); Life at the seaside (before/ca. 1614/15); and Travel impressions (1604, 1612). The exhibition catalogue closely follows the exhibition lay-out. Each section is preceded by short notes and adds more comparative drawings, prints and paintings than presented in the show.14 The catalogue opens with a chronology of Jan Brueghel’s life compiled by Bernadett Tóth and introductory essays by each of the main authors. Of great value for art historians worldwide is that within the entries on single drawings, efforts have been made to provide full technical notes on the drawings, as well as detailed provenances and bibliographies. The book has been carefully designed and edited. The handy portrait format makes it easy to leaf through but unfortunately reduces the format of the drawings that are mostly in oblong. A few imperfections can be noticed as it comes to the images in the catalogue. Several drawings have been slightly cut off, as a result of which inscriptions are not always (entirely) visible. Also, two drawings have been interchanged (cats. 4a and 4b), one sheet is shown larger than its actual size (cat. 59) and relevant drawings on reverse sights were not shown (cat. 36a). The organisers are to be applauded for this scholarly, yet accessible book. A small booklet in Dutch and English with biographical notes, small colour images and short labels for all presented works is available for the more general audience.15

The curators have wisely decided to select a wide range of drawings in order to show examples from every period in the career of Jan Brueghel, roughly from his stay in Italy in his early-twenties, until his later years in Antwerp. Despite the advantage of accessibility, the thematic presentation has some drawbacks, such as the various interfaces between the themes, the overlap in chronology and the somewhat limited timeframe for the theme ‘Life at the seaside’. In her introductory essay, Gerszi distinguishes the drawings’ functions as: studies made after nature or life (sometimes developed in complete compositions), working drawings with people or animals, compositional sketches (which ‘seldom correspond precisely to finished paintings’), preliminary drawings for prints and autonomous compositions (pp. 19-20). A chronological order, combined with a focus on the functions of his drawings, would have allowed for a fuller understanding of Jan Brueghel’s versatile drawn manner and the development of his style and technique. Moreover, it is exceptional for an artist of his time that so many different types of drawings have been preserved.

Although examples of Jan Brueghel’s early draughtsmanship (before his departure southward) are lacking within his preserved oeuvre and few drawings are dated, a clear stylistic evolution in his draughtsmanship can be discerned, mainly in comparison with his paintings. A chronological presentation of the drawings according to their function could explain the sometimes surprising differences in drawing technique and style. It is easier to understand, for instance, the rapid and vivid pen and brushstrokes of the somewhat isolated but ingenious, autonomous drawing Landscape with wagons on a road (cat. 46 and book cover and campaign image of the exhibition), if one knows that Jan Brueghel must have prepared his compositions with extremely rough drafts, such as the Sketch for a riverscape (cat. 20); in Frits Lugt’s own words: plein de brio (both drawings are dated ca. 1615).16 Also, a grouped presentation of Jan Brueghel’s drawings dated shortly before and after his return from Italy would provide more insight into the ways Brueghel started to conceive and integrate figures into his land-, river- and seascapes.

Several insights presented in the actual publication can and will be further elaborated in the catalogue raisonné, which is currently in preparation. What's remarkable however, certainly since the authors present their insights from the perspective of traditional connoisseurship, is the striking lack of attention to the explanation of attributions or write-offs in Jan Brueghel's oeuvre. In addition, the function of drawings, also within the workshop, has not received prime attention. The results of technical research, which in view of the rapid evolution of old and new techniques could increasingly support a more holistic art historical approach, have not yet been given the place they deserve. Below, I will briefly mention some specific issues that I believe remained somewhat underexposed within the exhibition, and the catalogue itself.

According to Karel van Mander, Jan Brueghel learned to use oil paint from Peter Goetkint (1539/40-1583), while his brother Pieter (1564-1638) was trained with landscape painter Gillis II van Coninxloo (1544-1606).17 It has been suggested by Matthias Winner that it may have been Jan, rather than Pieter, who trained with Coninxloo;18 an idea that is likely to have a considerable impact on our understanding of the origins of the wooded landscape. The hypothesis has not been further developed on the occasion of this exhibition. In any case, Jan travelled southward in 1588, through Cologne, while Coninxloo lived in the nearby Frankenthal from 1587 to 1595. Only in June 1590, is Jan documented for the first time in Italy, and more specifically, in Naples.

As is sufficiently known, Jan Brueghel attempted to master the style and compositional structure of his father’s drawings at the start of his career. This was beautifully shown in the exhibition with Pieter’s Woodland scene with five bears (cat. 11b) alongside Jan’s variation of the theme in Flooded stream valley with tall trees (cat. 11a). Also, Jan’s copy of his father’s Riverscape near Baasrode (cat. 15b) (fig. 1) and one of Jan’s drawings from the famous and much debated so-called ‘Lugt-group’ (cat. 13), were included in the show. The latter drawing belongs to a scattered group of very similar wooded landscape drawings mainly of a vertical format attributed to both father and son and inspired by Venetian masters such as Titian (1488/90-1576) and Domenico Campagnola (1482/1500-1564). Based on the many preserved copies and variants, it is clear that these innovative compositions, made by Pieter Bruegel in Rome around 1554 in Italy, were still very popular when they were in the possession of Jan Brueghel, half a century later. However, new insights on the aspect of authorship were not presented, while Wood Ruby herself in an article published in 2012, made an interesting suggestion regarding the reuse of these drawings by attributing a Mountainous landscape with exotic animals (fig. 2) from the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge (MA), formerly associated to Jan Brueghel, to Paul Bril (ca. 1554-1626).19 In the opinion of William W. Robinson, co-author of the more recent exhibition catalogue of Dutch and Flemish Old Master drawings in the same collection, this drawing should be reappointed to Jan Brueghel on technical and stylistic grounds as well as an inscription in his handwriting.20 An almost identical inscription occurs on the drawing presented in Antwerp.

Throughout the exhibition and catalogue, a main focus is the artistic heritage of Pieter Bruegel, discernible in the drawings of his son Jan. Let us, however, not forget that Jan’s drawings should also be placed in a much broader tradition of Southern Netherlandish landscape art, with the so-called Master of the Small Landscapes (see fig. 23/1 under cat. 23) as an important link. Whereas his inventiveness and pioneering role in the evolution of the landscape genre are rightly mentioned, mainly through the evocation of new compositional schemes, no thorough examples of his influence are given, even amongst contemporaries, apart from the repeated mention of Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/29-1682). In the chapter on the drawings made in Spa, for example, one could have referred to the Tuscan artist Remigio Cantagalina (1582-1656), for whom the encounter with Jan Brueghel in this place was instrumental for his further artistic development (see fig. 56/1 under cat. 56)..21

Furthermore, two newly attributed sheets with distinctive differences both in style and quality were shown (cats. 32, 42; from the British Museum and Musée du Louvre), the latter one with a curious one-to-one relation in composition and format with a painting, which might indicate that it is a copy. Here the lack of explanation previously mentioned, manifests itself. The same applies to Jan Brueghel’s working methods and handling of materials, such as the single use of a grid to transfer a drawing in another medium (cat. 52), the rare use of black chalk as main drawing material (cat. 36a), or coloured paper (cat. 47) and the artist’s unconventional way of applying wash (cats. 45, 57, 58). It is further remarkable that only a compositional sketch of birds remains, and no real study of these specimens, which occur so astonishingly accurate in his paintings (cat. 33; no explanation is given for the dark grey colour of the ink, as opposed to the otherwise very common brown colour in Jan’s drawings). Also, drawings of other animals (cat. 37), individual still lifes (cat. 35) and flowers (cat. 39), are unica.

To conclude, it does not yet become clear, how the authors relate to some crucial drawings previously attributed to Jan Brueghel, but nowhere referred to in the Antwerp exhibition catalogue. What to think for instance of the only two preserved ‘single’ figure drawings formerly attributed to Jan Brueghel: the Costume study for Archduchess Isabelle Clara Eugenia from Berlin,22 and Woman nursing a child, preserved in Haarlem?23 Both sheets are entirely executed in brush and were both associated with other artists in the past (respectively ‘Vrancx?’ and ‘Buytewech?’).They are often cited together in the context of Brueghel's study sheets, but were omitted in the actual publication.This is also the case for the frequently published drawing The Temptation of Saint Antony in Hamburg, which features the sometimes-doubted signature H. Bruegel (ca. 1601-04).24 In the Antwerp publication, the ways in which Jan Brueghel commonly signed (or dated) his drawn works is not consequently touched upon. The subject and the rendering of the figures further make the sheet atypical and there is an underdrawing discernible, a rare phenomenon in his drawings (cats. 46, 54, 60).

These and other questions raised by Jan Brueghel’s complex and diverse drawn oeuvre will hopefully be resolved in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Jan Brueghel’s drawings, by the same authors. It will promisingly include all the accepted sheets, copies of lost sheets, a selection of rejected attributions with argumentations and a small group of doubtful works. Insights from technical research undertaken thus far, and lists of all visited collections and archives will complete this mountainous task. In this way, a whole new perspective on Jan Brueghel’s drawings will soon be presented – though it will surprise no one, if his truly impressive and original draughtsmanship will, to quote Winner, remain a little Unbestimmt, forever.

Sarah van Ooteghem
Independent art historian


1 See for the full program: https://www.visitflanders.com/en/themes/arts-and-heritage/flemish-masters/pieter-bruegel-the-elder/top-bruegel-activities/index.jsp?country=en_US.

2 When we look to the Flemish and Dutch masters who have received this honour in large loan exhibitions, since 2000, what is striking is that it mainly concerns the most famous: Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Metropolitan Museum of Art & Museum Boijmans van Beuningen 2001 and Albertina 2017), Rubens (Metropolitan Museum of Art 2005) and Rembrandt, often combined with his so-called 'circle' (J. Paul Getty Museum 2009 or Museum het Rembrandthuis 2014). In addition, Maria Sybilla Merian (J. Paul Getty Museum & Museum het Rembrandthuis 2008 and Städel Museum & Küpferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin 2017-2018), and Johannes Thopas (Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum and Museum het Rembrandthuis 2014) were also honoured with exhibitions on their drawings – which in fact form the bulk of the oeuvre. Apart from exhibitions, monographs also appeared that focus on the drawn work of Northern Netherlandish artists. Drawings and more general work on paper, are also increasingly part of large retrospective exhibitions. For a recent overview, see: J. Noorman, ‘Drawn into the light. The state of research in seventeenth-century Dutch drawings’, in: W. Franits (et al.), Ashgate research companion to Dutch art of the seventeenth century, Abingdon 2016, pp. 321-337. An excellent and still very valuable overview of Flemish seventeenth-century draughtsmanship by Anne-Marie Logan is to be found in: Flemish drawings in the age of Rubens. Selected works from American collections, Wellesley & Cleveland 1993-1994, pp. 26-39.

3 Many thanks to Hildegard Van de Velde, curator of the Snijders&Rockox House, and Louisa Wood Ruby, who provided some crucial additional information regarding the research project and exhibition.

4 See her ‘Selected bibliography’ in: Andrea Czére (ed.), In arte venustas: Studies on drawing in honour of Teréz Gerszi. presented on her eightieth birthday, Budapest 2007, pp. 11-17.

5 Teréz Gerszi wrote the essay ‘Zur Zeichenkunst Jan Brueghels d. Ä.’ and the entries on all the drawings and prints after Jan Brueghel in the German publications accompanying the exhibition in Vienna and Essen (not translated in Dutch for the Antwerp venue): Klaus Ertz, Christina Nitze-Ertz (eds.), exh. cat. Essen, Kulturstiftung Ruhr, Villa Hügel, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, 1997-1998.

6 L. Wood Ruby, Paul Bril: The drawings (Pictura Nova. Studies in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Flemish painting and drawing, 4), Turnhout 1999.

7 L. Wood Ruby, ‘Jan Brueghel d. Ä. als Zeichner. Die frühen Jahre in Italien’, in: M. Neumeister (ed.), Brueghel: Gemälde von Jan Brueghel D. Ä, Munich, 2013, pp. 35-45.

8 M. Winner, ‘Zeichnungen des älteren Jan Brueghel’, Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen, 3 (1961), pp. 190-241.

9 M. Winner, ‘Neubestimmtes und Unbestimmtes im zeichnerischen Werk von Jan Brueghel der Ältere, Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen, 14 (1972), pp. 122-160.

10 F. Anzelewsky, Peter Dreyer, Lutz Malke, Hans Mielke, Konrad Renger, Matthias Winner, Berlin 1975.

11 M. Winner, ‘Jan Brueghel I als tekenaar’, in: Philippe Roberts-Jones (ed.), Bruegel: Een dynastie van schilders, Brussels 1980, pp. 209-225.

12 Wood Ruby (note 6), p. 35.

13 This title was given by the museum, but is somewhat misleading since the collection contains no work by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (who spelled his name without ‘h’). Instead, the visitor was introduced to Pieter Coecke van Aelst, Jan Brueghel I & II, Pieter Brueghel II, David Teniers II and Jan van Kessel. Several of these works are long term loans.

14 Seven drawings (among which two by Pieter Bruegel) and one small painting on copper marked with an asterisk in the catalogue, were not included in the exhibition.

15 The booklet is on sale in the museum or can be downloaded, for free, from the museum website: https://www.snijdersrockoxhuis.be/en/to-do/individual-visit.

16 F. Lugt, Ecole Flamande (Musée du Louvre. Inventaire général des dessins des écoles du nord), vol. 1, cat. 477.

17 K. van Mander, Het schilder-boeck, Haarlem 1604, fol. 234r.

18 Most recently in: Winner 1980 (note 11), p. 210.

19 Inv. 1977.4. See: L. Wood Ruby, ‘Bruegel/Brueghel/Bril: The “Lugt group” Revisited’, Master Drawings 50 (2012) 3, pp. 357-364.

20 W. W. Robinson, Susan Anderson, Drawings from the age of Bruegel, Rubens and Rembrandt: Highlights from the collection of the Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge 2016, cat. 16.

21 V. Van de Kerckhof, Helena Bussers, Véronique Bücken (eds.), Met passer en penseel: Brussel en het oude hertogdom Brabant in beeld, Brussels 2000, cats. 85-117 (Stefaan Hautekeete).

22 Inv. KdZ 9621. See: Berlin 1975 (note ix), cat. 127; Munich 2013 (note vi), under cat. 61, fig. 178.

23 Inv. O 059a. See: Y. Bleyerveld, I. M. Veldman, The Netherlandish drawings of the sixteenth century in the Teylers Museum (The Dutch drawings in the Teyler Museum), Leiden & Haarlem 2016, cat. 23.

24 Inv. 21762. See: A. Stefes, Niederländische Zeichnungen 1450-1850 (Die Sammlungen der Hamburger Kunsthalle Kupferstichkabinett, 3), Cologne & Weimar & Vienna 2011, vol. 1, cat. 175.

Sarah Van Ooteghem, ‘Review of: Jan Brueghel: A magnificent draughtsman', Oud Holland Reviews, August 2020.