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)