All That Glistens

Jan Brueghel the Elder
Brussels 1568 – 1625 Antwerp
The Flemish Fair
oil on copper
16 ¾ x 22 inches
42.6 x 55.9 cm
Lent by the Arnot Art Museum, New York
Bequest of Matthias H. Arnot, 1910

Jan Brueghel the Elder was a versatile artist, nicknamed ‘Velvet Brueghel’ for his meticulous and delicate brushwork. Although trained in his birth city of Brussels, Jan Brueghel’s earliest recorded works date to the mid-1590s from his travels in Italy. During this period, he worked on a significant group of still lifes and landscapes for Cardinal Federico Borromeo, founder of the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, which are among the best documented commissions of paintings on copper in history. Following his return to Antwerp in 1596, Jan Brueghel quickly became established with financial success and steady patronage, becoming court painter to the Archduke Albert and the Infanta Isabella, regents in the Southern Netherlands, a decade later.

Considered one of Jan Brueghel’s most beautiful and balanced landscape compositions, this spectacular work on copper was painted at the height of his artistic achievements. It depicts a fair, or Kermis, during which a religious festival is celebrated by a rustic party. While this subject was made popular by the artist’s father, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Jan’s visions celebrate the peaceful, bucolic aspects of country life without the drunken debauchery characteristic of the patriarch’s work. Unusual for its large format, this is an ambitious synthesis of two types of pictures he frequently painted throughout his career – village scenes (e.g. Royal Collection, Hampton Court Palace, inv.RCIN 405513) and river landscapes (e.g. The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., inv. 2000.4.1). His View of Schelle (Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna, inv. 9102), a work painted a year later shows a similar strategy.

Jan Brueghel the Elder, Country Fair in Schelle, 1614, oil on panel, 52 x 90.5 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, inv. 9102.

The inexhaustible details provide a vivid record of life. In the foreground, a crowd of villagers arriving by foot, boat and cart gather to trade gossip and to barter their livestock and other goods. The bustling scene trails off along the meandering waters, all the way into the distance. Looming behind trees in the far right stands a tall spire recognizably belonging to that of the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp. The subtle juxtaposition of light and shade creates a wonderful sense of depth, while the skillful mix of cool blues with bright bursts of reds adds much rhythm to the composition.

The Flemish Fair was formerly in the collection of the Dukes of Hamilton in Scotland – a superb collection of fine and decorative art dispersed in two series of sales in 1882 and 1919. Matthias Arnot, a late 19th century American industrialist and financier turned art collector, happened to be in London at the time of the first Hamilton Palace sale and bought the picture. It is possibly the first painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder to come to America. ❖

Signature / Inscription

signed and dated ‘BRUEGHEL 1613’, lower center

Provenance

Alexander Hamilton (1767-1852), 10th Duke of Hamilton, Hamilton Palace, Scotland

His estate sale, London, Christie’s, The Hamilton Palace Collection, 8 July 1882, lot 1027

Matthias H. Arnot (1833-1910), Elmira, NY, acquired at the above sale (bought for £451)

Bequeathed by the above to the Arnot Art Museum, Elmira, NY, 1910

Bibliography

Arnot Art Museum, Permanent Collection of the Arnot Art Gallery, Elmira, NY, 1914, p. 31, no. 49.

Kenneth H. Lindquist (intro.), Arnot Art Museum: catalog of the permanent collection, New York, 1973, pp. 95-96, reproduced. Klaus Ertz, Jan Brueghel der Ältere (1568-1625): Die Gemalde mit kritishem Oeuvrekatalog, Cologne, 1979, pp. 220-221, 602, no. 270, reproduced pl. 277.

Rachael Sandinsky, A Collector’s Vision: The 1910 Bequest of Matthias H. Arnot, New York, 1989, no. 49.

Louisa Wood Ruby, ‘A Family Affair: Bruegel and Sons in America’, in Esmée Quodbach (ed.), America and the Art of Flanders: Collecting Paintings by Rubens, Van Dyck, and Their Circles, New York, 2020.

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