River Landscape

Jan Brueghel the Elder1607

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Jan Brueghel, whose delicate brushwork earned him the name Velvet Brueghel, was an artist of remarkable versatility. He is justly famed for his atmospheric landscapes and riverscapes, which come alive not only through the careful yet fluid strokes of his brush, but also through the activities of the figures who populate his scenes. He also painted flower bouquets, many of which include depictions of precious objects; mythological, allegorical, and historical subjects; and evocative scenes of hell.

Brueghel apparently received his early training in Brussels, the city of his birth, but his first recorded works date to the mid-1590s, when he was in Italy. His early style reflects the work of Paul Bril, a contemporary artist from Antwerp working in Rome and a close follower of Jan's father, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. In 1597, after returning to Antwerp, Jan entered the Guild of Saint Luke and quickly established himself as an important member of the artistic community. He served as dean of the guild in 1602. In 1606 he became court painter for Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella, regents in the Southern Netherlands. Brueghel, who often collaborated with other artists, including Peter Paul Rubens and Joos de Momper, was highly valued by kings and princes throughout Europe for his refined and delicate images, many of which he painted on copper.

Brueghel executed this exquisite small-scale work depicting an expansive river landscape in 1607, when he was at the height of his artistic powers. His image focuses upon daily life near the juncture of a broad river and a smaller tributary, which passes through a small village. Gentle pools of light, as well as changes in the color tonalities of the trees and water--from ochers and browns in the foreground, to greens in the middle distance, to blues in the distance--ease the transition into depth. Although the scene is fanciful, it must reflect life along the Scheldt, the main river passing through the low-lying Flemish countryside. The large church dominating the distant city on the horizon is recognizable as Saint Michaelis, the Antwerp cathedral.

The foreground activities center on a tender moment when a boatman passes a baby to his father after having transported the family across the wide river. While a group of elegant ladies and a child awaits passage, other ferryboats filled with travelers, horses, and cattle approach the shore. Many other figures, including fishermen and families working around their homes, enliven the sunlit middle distance near the village.

Paintings such as this had enormous influence on Flemish art and, perhaps, on Dutch landscapes in the second decade of the seventeenth century. Brueghel's river views were certainly known to artists working in Haarlem, including Esaias van de Velde and Willem Buytewech, whom he may have met when he visited that artistic center in 1613 while accompanying Peter Paul Rubens on a diplomatic mission to The Netherlands.

(Text by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., published in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue, Art for the Nation, 2000)

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  • Title: River Landscape
  • Date Created: 1607
  • Physical Dimensions: w32.1 x h20.7 cm (overall)
  • Type: Painting
  • Rights: Patrons' Permanent Fund and Nell and Robert Weidenhammer Fund
  • External Link: National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
  • Medium: oil on copper
  • painter: Jan Brueghel the Elder
  • Theme: architecture, exterior
  • School: Flemish
  • Provenance: Duke of Chandos, Canons, Edgware, Middlesex; by descent in his family;[1] (Galerie Nissl, Vaduz); purchased 10 February 2000 through (Galerie Sanct Lucas, Vienna) by NGA. [1] The dealer's invoice to the NGA gives the provenance as "The duke of Chandos, Stowe, thence by descent to the present owner." It has not been possible to determine which duke of Chandos first owned the painting. The first duke of Chandos was James Brydges (1673-1744); he received the title in 1719 and had a large picture collection at his estate, originally known as Cannons. After his two sons, his immediate family had no direct male descendants, and the Brydges connection was handed down through women in the family. The first duke's great-granddaughter, Anna Eliza [1779-1836], married Richard Nugent-Temple-Grenville [1776-1839], who held many titles, including 1st duke of Buckingham and Chandos. Anna Eliza took to her husband's seat in Stowe the bulk of her family's papers, which have been at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, since 1925. The couple's descendants also used the Chandos title, and most of the dukes of Buckingham and Chandos collected paintings. See P.G.M. Dickson and J.V. Beckett, "The Finances of the Dukes of Chandos: Aristocratic Inheritance, Marriage, and Debt in Eighteenth-Century England," Huntington Library Quarterly 64, nos. 3 and 4 (2001): 309-355; Joan Johnson, Princely Chandos, James Brydges 1674-1744, London, 1984: 172, 175-176; C.H. Collins Baker and Muriel Baker, The Life and Circumstances of James Brydges First Duke of Chandos, Oxford, 1949: xii, xv, 69-83; John Beckett, The Rise and Fall of the Grenvilles: Dukes of Buckingham and Chandos, 1710 to 1921, Manchester and New York, 1994.