Karel van Mander (1548–1606), the renowned biographer of the Netherlandish painters, concludes his life of Pieter Brueghel the Elder—the famous “Peasant Brueghel,” circa 1530–1569—with these sentences:
He was survived by two sons, both good painters themselves. The one named Pieter studied with Gillis van Conincxloo and paints likenesses from nature. Jan, after learning to paint in watercolors from his grandmother, the widow of Pieter Koeck van Aelst, went to a certain Pieter Goetkind, whose house was full of many beautiful objects, and from him learned to paint in oils. Later, he journeyed to Italy. He has garnered the highest praise for his marvelously painted small landscapes with very small figures.
Both father and sons worked in Antwerp, at that time the most important artistic center north of the Alps. It had a thriving art market and flourishing publishing houses that did an especially brisk business in engravings based on the works of the elder Brueghel. Nowhere else was the connection between early capitalism and the trade in images so efficiently organized.
It was an era of religious crises. Painting had lost its most important patron, the church. Antwerp had a central part in the emergence of new, secular subjects: landscapes and genre paintings. Pictures of peasant life—especially weddings and festivals, markets and money changers—were in demand by both galleries and private collectors. Pieter Brueghel the Elder overshadows all others as the artist who lent a monumental dignity to such secular scenes. His two sons drew upon that almost mythic legacy. Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564–1637/38) specialized in large-format repetitions of his father’s compositions, which were obviously still in demand, although the original versions were long since in the possession of Emperor Rudolf II.
Jan (1568–1625) also owed much to his father’s legacy but went his own way. In his works for private collectors he minutely explored a range of subjects: forest landscapes, village streets, coastal panoramas with great congregations of people, nocturnes with glowing fires, mythological and hunting scenes, and finally, bouquets and wreaths with botanically accurate depictions of hundreds of flower species. These are artworks for the connoisseur and appreciating them almost requires a magnifying glass. As interesting and skillful as they are, they are not great masterpieces. They were painted at a time when the first naturalistic landscapes and depictions of society began to appear in Holland, and from 1610 onward, the star of Rubens was in the ascendant.
The last governor of the Spanish Netherlands was Maximilian II Emanuel of the Bavarian House of Wittelsbach. Thanks to his passion for collecting, and the transfer of work in Düsseldorf and Mannheim to Munich, the Alte Pinakothek there became the richest treasury of Flemish painting. Its Rubens collection is universally recognized for its brilliance and comprehensiveness and it overshadows the museum’s holdings of works by lesser Antwerp masters. Even so …