Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 19, 2001
Nadine M. Orenstein, ed. Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Drawings and Prints Exh. cat. Yale University Press in association with Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. 336 pp.; 108 color ills.; 166 b/w ills. $60.00 (0300090145)
Museum Boijmans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam, the Netherlands, May 24–August 5, 2001; and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, September 25–December 2, 2001

See also: Hans Mielke, Pieter Bruegel: Die Zeichnungen, reviewed by Dorothy Limouze

As the European Cultural Capital of the year 2001, Rotterdam had something quite special to offer—a sensational exhibition, the likes of which will scarcely, if ever, occur again. Almost all of the total graphic work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525–69) was on view this past summer at the Boijmans-van Beuningen Museum in the Netherlands. This splendid show was conceived in close collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it will be shown this fall.

The sensitivity of works on paper and the resulting conservation questions, which make major exhibitions of graphic art ever more difficult, only increase our admiration for the efforts of the show’s organizers. It took almost five years of preparation to be able to display fifty-five of the sixty-one drawings included in Hans Mielke’s oeuvre catalogue from 1996, Pieter Bruegel: Die Zeichnungen (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1996). In addition, the exhibition gathered the printed works that are mostly in rare and early impressions, among which were a few sensational examples (e.g., Orenstein 2001, cat. 82, 85). Eight of the works have never been publicly shown, and four of the six drawings from private collections were scarcely available for scholarly investigation in the past (cat. 15, 17, 50, 62). The significance of the exhibition was increased by the biographical fact that these graphic works constitute virtually the entire known early work of Bruegel. Aside from a few written sources, these drawings and prints are the only evidence of his artistic origins.

In the English catalogue accompanying the exhibition, co-organizer Nadine M. Orenstein provides biographical information. She dedicates another essay to Bruegel’s engagement in the field of graphic production, which provides insightful commentary on the production process as well as the chronology of a few undated printed works. Following this is an iconographic investigation of Bruegel’s graphics by Manfred Sellink and an essay by Larry Silver about Bruegel’s fame and heritage. Sellink’s aim is to explain the enigmatic, iconographic pictorial inventions of Bruegel in their cultural and historical context. In his well-written essay, Silver demonstrates the far-reaching influence of Bruegel and illustrates the immense meaning his work held for artists of the following generation.

Martin Royalton-Kisch provides the catalogue’s central essay, discussing the evolution of Bruegel’s drawing oeuvre. The starting point for both Royalton-Kisch’s writing and the exhibition as a whole is indebted to Mielke’s catalogue, which attempted to bring order to a scholarship that in less than a century had changed fundamentally. Intensive engagement with Bruegel drawings began in 1925, when Charles de Tolnay prepared a pioneering book, Die Zeichnungen Pieter Bruegels (Munich, 1925), which built on the previous efforts of René van Bastelaer’s Pietere Bruegel: L’ancien son oevre et son Temps (Bruxelles, 1907). (A revised edition of Tolnay’s text appeared in 1952). Ten years later, Ludwig Münz produced Bruegel: The Drawings (London, 1961), an expanded catalogue of the drawings—including more works attributed to the master—that formed the basis of further scholarship. Some of those added attributions, however, were reassigned to other artists by more recent study. As a result, of the 154 Münz attributions, only a small core remains today. Mielke’s book contains only sixty-one authentic sheets by Bruegel.

Even Mielke realized that the process of defining Bruegel’s drawing corpus was not complete. In the foreword of his book, he rightly questions how Bruegel’s oeuvre will look in the future. Scarcely five years after the appearance of his catalogue raisonné, this Rotterdam exhibition offered the opportunity to test some of the debatable attributions in the presence of confirmed originals and to take stock of the current state of scholarship. For instance, a pastoral scene discovered by Mielke (cat. 3)—which bears Bruegel’s name and a date of 1552—not only resembles the Ambrosiana landscape dated to the same year (cat. 2), but also a Braunschweig hilly landscape (cat. 4) and a Leiden village landscape (cat. 5). The four unsigned sheets, which were long attributed to an imitator or artist from Bruegel’s circle, now hold a firm place in his oeuvre. In spite of its distinctive wash and painterly application of white highlights, Mielke’s attribution of a drawing on blue paper is convincing in its general composition, as well as in other details, such as the arrangement of dots between the individual tree trunks. Moreover, infrared examination reveals underdrawing, providing further evidence of Breugel’s hand.

Other attributions perhaps need reexamination, such as a drawing (cat. 81) that had long been regarded as a reversed copy of Bruegel’s only etching (cat. 82). This landscape depicting a rabbit hunt had already been seen by Mielke as an authentic Bruegel (Mielke 1996, 53); Royalton-Kisch has endorsed this interpretation (see “A Sketch for a ‘Journey to Emmaus’ by Pieter Bruegel the Elder,” Master Drawings 38 (2000): 443–47) and has offered another drawing, the Rotterdam landscape representing the Pilgrims to Emmaus, as a closely related, authentic work (Orenstein 2001, cat. 89). The show offered the chance to see these drawings side by side in comparison with the undisputed etching. Undoubtedly, Royalton-Kisch is correct to see the same hand in both drawings, yet skepticism persists about whether this author was Bruegel himself. As welcome as any new attribution to the reduced oeuvre might seem, questions still remain. Broad portions of the landscape with a rabbit hunt are drawn too flatly and sketchily to be seen as preparatory to the ingenious composition of the etching. This pair of drawings should more properly be ascribed to the circle of Bruegel, which was well-represented in the exhibition by the well-known “Master of the Mountain Landscapes” (cat. 120–25). Several of these sheets, once firmly anchored in the corpus of Bruegel drawing, bear watermarks that formerly turned up only on decidedly later-dated prints (Mielke 1996, 75). For example, one of the largest and most attractive Bruegel drawings, a key work in New York’s Pierpont Morgan Library dubbed the “Rhine Landscape” (Orenstein 2001, cat. 120), has a watermark that Picard shows to be part of an Alsatian group that first appeared ca. 1585–88. Mielke’s study concludes that a number of related drawings have no place in Bruegel’s oeuvre, including two works from the Seilern Collection (Mielke 1996, A5–A6) and several other mountain landscapes, such as the much-discussed Berlin “Martinswand” (A2, A4, A7, A8, A17). No less insightful are the deattributions of a group of sheets signed with Bruegel’s name and dated between 1554 and 1562 (Orenstein 2001, cat. 126–29). Among these are some beguiling views of Amsterdam fortifications and fantasy views of countryside and mountains (Mielke 1996, A21–A45); they have been credited of late to the hand of Jacob Savery (ca. 1565-1603) under the assumption that he made them with the conscious intent to falsify them (see Pieter Schatborn, cat. entry for “Jacques Saverij I, Old Amsterdam Fortifications,” in Dawn of the Golden Age, Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum, 1993: 197). Elsewhere, the “naer het leven” figure studies by Roelant Savery (1576–1639), made from nature on a trip through Tyrol, probably served as motives and stock themes for his own work (Orenstein 2001, cat. 130–34). Also used presumably as a fund of motives were works by Jan Bruegel (1568–1625) that copy the works of his father (cat. 119); one of these, a landscape with exotic animals, gave a powerful impression of the lost original.

The possibilities, however, are limited for closing the gaps in transmission by the comparison of drawings that perhaps refer to a Bruegel original (on this problem, see Mielke 1996, 16–17). Recall how both Jacob and Roelant Savery closely attempted the style of Bruegel; it appears that many a supposed copy could instead be an adaptation of the Bruegel style. Conclusive evaluation of these drawings will be possible only after a thorough investigation of the “Bruegel Renaissance” that took place about 1600. The goal of such scholarship would be to relocate more exactly those drawings that recent writers have taken away from Bruegel and reattributed to the community of artists who emulated Bruegel’s style at that time.

In addition to a more exact arrangement of the drawings standing close to Bruegel, more should be said about the so-called “Master of the Small Landscapes” (Orenstein 2001, cat. 135–44). This heterogeneous group of landscapes attributed to him—which in part served as studies for the 1559 and 1561 print series edited by Hieronymus Cock and were illustrations in the 1921 Bruegel monograph by Max J. Friedländer—have been seen for a long time as the work of at least one unknown artist. The question of authorship of the “Small Landscapes” should probably remain open for now. The only certain thing is that they were made after the middle of the sixteenth century by an Antwerp artist—who stood in direct contact with Hieronymus Cock—and that they thus belong squarely in Pieter Bruegel’s sphere of influence.

It may appear presumptuous to demand more of such a rich exhibition, but a few drawings where Mielke doubted Breugel’s authorship were missing from this show. To see these sheets in critical comparison beside his accepted works would have been very rewarding. One might have wished also to see the chalk drawing of two draftsmen from Besançon (Mielke 1996, 13). This sheet was excluded from the Bruegel corpus, not least because of its unique medium for the artist; it has recently been viewed as a copy. Karl Arndt, however (see “Frühe Landschaftszeichnungen von Pieter Bruegel d. Ä.,” Pantheon 25, (1967): 102–4), saw this drawing as a Bruegel, which, as Mielke acknowledged, was more “Bruegelian” than the etching from this work that is credited to the master. In light of new discoveries, such as black chalk underdrawing beneath a colored drawing of a forest landscape (in Cambridge), it would have been interesting to show this work beside the one from Besançon. And what a pity that the Courtauld Institute did not see fit to lend the “Stormy Scheldt River before Antwerp” (Mielke 1996, 52), a drawing that likewise reveals an underdrawing in chalk.

The organizers of the exhibition apparently attempted not only to fulfill conservation requirements but also to follow a formal concept. Light levels were designed for sublimity but in the process left the terse labels in the dark to the extent that visitors less familiar with Bruegel’s works wandered cluelessly through the rooms. The thematic installation of the works was directed presumably at the Dutch public, so as not to disturb their illusion of “Pier den Drol” (Pieter the Comic) or “Bauernbruegel” (Peasant Bruegel). In contrast to the planned New York installation, as well as the catalogue, the images in Rotterdam were not arranged chronologically but iconographically, which obscured a possible new vision of the artist’s early work.

Yet such details in no way damage the positive overall effect of the exhibition. The catalogue, opulently produced and splendidly illustrated, will surely become the standard work supplementing Mielke’s catalogue of the drawings. Moreover, in Rotterdam, an equally well-printed introductory volume in Dutch by Manfred Sellink is also available, which sketches the biography of Bruegel and discusses the main works of the exhibition.

Nils Buttner
Braunschweig, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum