Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 16, 1999
Hans Mielke Pieter Bruegel: Die Zeichnungen Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Publishers, 1996. 247 pp.; 161 b/w ills. Cloth €69.00 (250350499X)

See also: Nadine M. Orenstein, ed. Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Drawings and Prints, reviewed by Nils Buttner

This recent catalogue of the drawings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder is the product of decades of research on the part of its author, who served as a curator of the Berlin-Dahlem Print Room from 1971 until his death in 1994. A widely respected scholar, Hans Mielke was the author of several significant publications, including major catalogues of the drawings of Dürer, Rubens and his circle, and Albrecht Altdorfer. Mielke became absorbed in the complexities of Bruegel’s drawings during his collaboration with Matthias Winner on the important Berlin-Dahlem exhibition, Pieter Bruegel der Aeltere als Zeichner (1975).

Published posthumously, this book is a complete, if capsulated, presentation of ideas that have evolved in the wake of Ludwig Munz’s 1961 catalogue of Bruegel drawings. Changes to the oeuvre wrought by Mielke involve not only a reduction in number from 154 to sixty-eight sheets, but also the reattribution to Bruegel of several previously rejected drawings and the addition of three newly discovered works. By far the most frustrating problems of attribution concern the large group of landscape drawings, including a number of Alpine panoramas that were once regarded as key works from Bruegel’s journey to Italy. The reattribution of those scenes to Roelandt Savery is perhaps the most controversial section of this book.

To date, reviewers have been struck by the stark contrast between the catalogues of Mielke and Munz (see Kisch, in Burlington Magazine CXL, no. 1140, March 1998; Serebrennikov, in Art Bulletin LXXX, no. 1, March 1998; Seelig, in Zeitschrift fur Kunstgeschichte 3, 1998). Side by side, the oeuvre lists show conspicuous differences; and yet decades of published research have prepared us for these changes.

In fact, the changes to Bruegel’s oeuvre have emerged from developing knowledge about those artists of the next generations, who were in one form or another his followers. The earliest group of works to be separated from the canon are those by the figure that Mielke identified as the Master of the Small Landscapes (nos. A 46.1-46.11). Even by Munz’s time, these drawings, spuriously ascribed to Bruegel by print inscriptions, were being attributed to other masters. In the late 1960s, the naer het leven figure studies were identified by Frans van Leeuwen and Joneath Spicer as studies made by Roelandt Savery in Prague in the early seventeenth century. During the 1970s, articles by Karl Arndt and Matthias Winner addressed problems in the landscape drawings of Pieter and Jan I. Brueghel, while An Zwollo published a core group of works by Roelandt Savery’s elder brother Jacob. On the basis of these findings, Mielke was later able to connect with Jacob Savery the small views of cliffs, city gates, and villages that form a subgroup within the Bruegel landscapes (A 21-A 45). Finally, in the early 1990s Mielke himself published his current ideas regarding reattributions to Jacques and Roelandt Savery, in a book review and three articles, in English, German, and French. (Mielke, review of K. G. Boon, L’ipoque de Lucas de Leyde et Pierre Bruegel: Dessins des anciens Pays-Bas: Collection Frits Lugt, Master Drawings, Spring 1986, esp. pp. 76-88; idem, “Les paysages forestiers dans l’oeuvre de Bruegel,” in Le paysage en Europe du XVIe au XVIIIe siecle, Paris: Reunion des Musees Nationaux, 1994, pp. 15-23; idem, “Pieter Bruegel d.D. Probleme seines Zeichnerischen Oeuvres,” Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen, vol. 33, 1991, pp. 129-134; idem, “Noch einmal zum Problem von Pieter Bruegels Landschaftszeichnungen,” Munchener Jahrbuch der bildenden Kunst vol. 42, 1991, pp. 137-147)

The process of amending Mielke’s catalogue has already begun to a modest degree. Martin Kisch has noted the inclusion of a probable copy and two sheets that appear to be later emulations of Bruegel’s manner (review in Burlington Magazine CXL, no. 1140, March 1998, on M. 16, 25, and 54). Likewise, a second reviewer, Nina Serebrennikov (Art Bulletin, LXXX, no. 1, p. 178) voiced concerns over Mielke’s attributions of five landscapes with similar focus on fore- and middle-grounds (M. 4, 7, 7a, 8, and 9) as well as the upright landscapes of the so-called “Lugt Group” (M. 18 and 19). As a whole, the landscapes brought together by Mielke do present awkward shifts between compositional schemes. This said, any thorough revisions will take some tim—-not merely because Mielke’s book was the result of painstaking deliberation, but also because of the difficulties of evaluating the attributions without repeated study of the originals.

Mielke’s arguments regarding the deattribution of the grandiose Alpine landscapes (A 1 to A 20) rest on the discoveries that some borrow motifs from prints made after Bruegel, and that two sheets in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, and in Dresden (A 1 and A 2) bear watermarks from the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century. Having studied the Bowdoin College drawing (A 10), I was not surprised by the revelation that it, like the Morgan sheet it loosely resembles, could date from the early seventeenth century. The real dilemma emerges when one tries to pin down the author of the drawing. Mielke’s suggestion was Roelandt Savery, the creator of the naer het leven drawings. He argued this attribution on the basis of that Savery drawings show a preference for mountain views, and for particular treatments of trees, houses, and figural staffage.

To be sure, Roelandt Savery is a logical candidate, for his exceptional skill in this genre and for the reason that he, like his brother Jacob, made a serious study of Bruegel drawings early in his career. However, some puzzling questions remain. The watermarks identified in this group do not conform to any that have been described by Spicer in her catalogue of Savery’s drawings. Further, the artist of these landscapes disguised his own hand, mimicking Bruegel to a degree not seen in the naer het leven drawings. Here is one point where the author might have brought in comparative material in support of his theory, had this been possible.

A factor that Mielke did not consider concerns the widespread practice on the part of Northern Mannerist artists of emulating key artists of the past. This phenomenon has been discussed in a variety of studies of artists working in the Netherlands, Nuremberg, Munich, and Prague, most often in the manner of Dürer or Bruegel. In an article written in tandem with her review, Serebrennikov brought this idea to a reading of the Alpine landscapes, in effect finding new reason to support the attribution to the Rudolfine artist Savery (“Imitating Nature/Imitating Bruegel,” Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek, vol. 47, 1996, pp. 223-246). Indeed, to think of the Alpine landscapes as the products of a faithful, enthusiastic emulator rather than as Mielke had, a “Fdlscher” (74) is to better understand their imaginative character and the numbers in which they were produced. It is interesting to note that Mielke referred to the so-called Lugt group of Bruegelesque woodland scenes (variants of M. 18 and 19), in more liberal terms, as “free imitations” (41).

While there is no evidence regarding Bruegel’s workshop or his pupils—if any existed—there is clearly more information to be tapped from the work of his sons, Pieter II and Jan I Brueghel, who must have learned to draw by copying their late father’s work. Indeed, Mielke’s reattribution of the Mountain Landscape with a Mule Caravan in Rotterdam (M. 5) to Pieter the Elder provides an interesting opportunity to address the question of such copies. The variant in pen and wash illustrated as M. 5A (Munich) is often connected with Jan Brueghel, because of its technique and signature (BRVEGHEL / 1603). However, this point is not mentioned in Mielke’s reference to it.

In the case of the elder son, Pieter Brueghel II, attributions seem to hit a brick wall—that of his ill-drawn fortifications of the Castle of Hoerzuylens (Paris, Louvre), signed and dated 1625 (see Georges Marlier, Pierre Brueghel le jeune, Brussels: Editions Robert Finck, 1969, 448). Because of its clumsy perspective (an indictment of the 65-year-old’s skills), Mielke connects him only with the awkwardly constructed Painter at his Easel (Probl. 6a). Even the Kneeling Shepherd (Mielke, Probl. 5), which Marlier had attributed to Pieter II, is not mentioned as a possibility. It has puzzled this reviewer that the negative image of Pieter the Younger as a painter and draftsman should be so out of sync with his contemporary reputation. Van Mander mentioned him as a pupil of Gillis van Coninxloo, the founder of a ‘school’ of landscape drawing. Perhaps there are drawings by Pieter II which combine the influences of his father and Coninxloo. Further, the Rudolfine Court Artists Bartholomeus Spranger and Aegidius Sadeler commemorated his sixtieth birthday in a splendid portrait engraving that proclaims him the mirror image and emulator of his father. At the very least, the links between the Brueg(h)els, father and sons, need further exploration.

The intuitive, object-oriented, and fact-driven character of connoisseurship makes it particularly vulnerable to scrutiny and to the negative stereotyping of both its methods and practitioners. Hans Mielke somehow rose high above that miasma. By background a scholar of Germanic studies, and a brilliant protégé of the art historian Hans Kauffmann, he was a man of great wit and generosity, genuinely eager to share ideas and solicit opinions. For him, connoisseurship was as much the product of intellectual exchange as any historical or theoretical inquiry.

In his extensive involvement with writing catalogues raisonnés, Mielke knew first-hand the fallibility of a connoisseur’s judgments. One needs only to read the following passage in his introduction: “Bearing in mind the copious errors to which our revered predecessors have fallen prey, we look with skepticism on the drawings that we now present as authentic works. How will the next oeuvre list look—that prepared thirty years from now?” (1, reviewer’s translation)

Yet further down, skepticism gives way to wry pragmatism: “There have been significant utterances on Bruegel, clever and almost poetic, made before works that were not made by him” (1). The sincere dedication that he brought to his final book reflects a deep conviction about the essential nature of the catalogue: rooted, in his words, in “the list, that naturally forms the kernel of [one’s] work.” (1).

Dorothy Limouze
St, Lawrence University