The spelling and pronunciation of Bruegel is enough to confuse you, but the name harks back to a dynasty of Flemish artists that spanned over four generations. At Bath’s Holburne Museum is an exhibition dedicated to the Bruegel family, and discovered among the many archived works collected by William Holburne was an original by Pieter Brueghel the Younger. The work was originally thought to be of a copyist of unknown repute, but when Director Jennifer Scott came across the work she questioned its origins and further examination lead to the discovery of an original work of Pieter Breughel the Younger. Wedding Dance in the Open Air features in the Holburne’s exhibition Bruegel Defining a Dynasty. It is the only version of this scene to be exhibited in a UK public museum, and we have the privilege of having it right on our front doorstep.
The Holburne Museum has put together a fantastic exhibition of works by the Bruegel family, curated by Amy Orrock and Jennifer Scott, with several works on loan from across the country. The curators have done a wonderful job demonstrating how the Bruegel brand developed and evolved. But which Bruegel is which? On entering the exhibition, you are presented with a family tree to help you disentangle the artists from one another. Beginning with Pieter the Elder, the exhibition moves on to his two sons, Pieter the Younger and Jan the Elder; it then travels along the family tree to the other artists’ children. The tree explains where Jan the Younger, Abraham Bruegel, Jan Van Kessel, Jan Van Kessel the Younger and David Teniers all fit into the family so as you walk through the exhibition you are not befuddled by which Bruegel is which.
You are first introduced to the works of Pieter the Elder; a Renaissance artist who drew upon Humanist influences, exploring morality and the individuals place in the world. It was common of Renaissance paintings to hold moral meanings which the patron or viewer would be familiar with and you will find the same approach in Bruegel’s work. A wonderful example is Netherlandish Proverbs in which you can play ‘spot the proverb’, as it features nearly a hundred proverbs interspersed throughout the painting.
The interesting thing about Pieter the Elder and the Younger is that their landscapes are very realistic and you cannot help but be awed by how they perfected the use of perspective. However, the people that feature in their paintings and engravings lack the idealism that you often see in Renaissance works. Faces display very real human expressions of weariness, exhaustion, joy, jollity, greed and so on. The curators address the debate of whether the Bruegel’s were laughing at the peasants or laughing with them and have concluded that they were more than likely laughing along with the peasants.
Moving through the exhibition we come to Jan the Elder. He was dubbed ‘The Velvet’ because he brought a style of refinement to the Brueghel name with his focus on flower still lives, his delicate and luminous style, and the new technique of painting on copper. He was one of the first to paint flowers with such realism and sophistication, making him another artistic innovator among the family. He is also well known for popularising the paradise landscape alongside another Flemish artist, Roelant Savery. The family line, descending from Jan ‘The Velvet’, focused more on nature but we can still see that same dedication to accurate perspective and landscapes as Pieter the Elder and the Younger showed in their works.
I must confess I am a much bigger fan of the works by Jan the Elder, but that is purely personal taste. I appreciate the works by the older Bruegel’s and for anyone interested in art, history and culture, this is an exhibition not to be missed. This was a family of artistic innovators, and they left their mark on history. It was common practice for artists to produce copies of the masters and while you can find several copies of paintings by unknown artists, you don’t always get the opportunity to view so many original Bruegel works in one exhibition.
Bruegel Defining a Dynasty Exhibition is on 11 February – 4 June 2017 at the Holburne Museum.