A family of artists for the common people

Private collection

“The Outdoor Wedding Dance” by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (ca 1610)

By Robert Reed / Special to The Japan NewsAfter runs in several European cities, the exhibition “Brueghel: 150 years of an Artistic Dynasty” has come to the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in Ueno Park, Tokyo. It is a show of about 100 fine works gathered mainly from private collections, with most appearing in Japan for the first time.

As its title indicates, it is unusual in its treatment of not one artist but four generations of a family of artists and the many studio members and collaborating painters that gathered around them. It truly was a dynasty, and it came at a time of great developments in art in the Netherlands and Flanders (now Belgium) at the beginning of the 16th century, which would come to be known as the Northern Renaissance.

The founder of this dynasty was Pieter Bruegel the Elder, also known as Pieter I (ca 1525-1569), who is frequently described as the foremost figure in 16th-century Flemish painting.

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  • Private collection

    “Still Life of Tulips and Roses, in a Glass Vase, Resting on a Table” by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Jan Brueghel the Younger (ca 1615-20)

  • Private collection, Luxembourg

    “The Bird Trap” by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1601)

  • Private collection

    “Landscape with the Parable of the Sower” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Jacob Grimmer (1557)

  • Private collection, USA

    “Butterflies, Beetles and Bat” by Jan van Kessel the Elder, a great-grandson of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1659)

He had two sons who also became leading painters of their day. The eldest, known as Pieter Brueghel the Younger, or Pieter II (1564-ca 1638), carried on his father’s legacy of diverse subjects ranging from the standard religious works to the emerging genres of landscape, still life and “genre” paintings of the daily life of the commoners, as well as paintings of ships and travel. Also, his art almost always contained strong moral allegories, as we see in works like Pieter II’s “The Seven Acts of Mercy” (1616).

The second son is known as Jan Brueghel the Elder, or Jan I (1568-1625), and like his older brother, he was painting from an early age. In fact, after the boys’ mother died while they were still young, they were sent to be raised by their grandmother, who was an accomplished painter of miniatures, and it is believed that she was the first to teach them to paint.

Like his father, who had ventured to Renaissance Italy for two years, where he learned to paint mountainous landscapes that didn’t exist in Flanders, Jan I would travel to Italy around 1589 and become successful with his landscape paintings.

The third major painter in the family line was a son of Jan I, commonly known as Jan Brueghel the Younger, or Jan II (1601-78), who began his training in his father’s studio at the age of 10 and took over the studio when his father died. He became very successful at completing and selling the many unfinished works his father left behind.

This explains the good number of paintings in this exhibition listed as joint works of Jan I and Jan II, like the glorious “Still Life of Tulips and Roses, in a Glass Vase, Resting on a Table” (ca 1615-20). Jan II would have 11 children, among whom five sons would also become painters.

However, great art isn’t born of family lineage alone. The real story to be found in this exhibition is the saga of one family based in Antwerp, a city emerging as the economic capital of Europe at a pivotal point in art history when patronage was shifting from the nobility and the church to the newly rich commoners of the merchant class.

This shift enabled a “democratization” of art that resulted in an ascendance of the previously second-rate artistic veins of landscape, still life and “genre” paintings. All of these were subjects that the Brueghel artists pioneered and excelled in.

A good example of a genre painting that also includes landscape and allegorical aspects is Pieter II’s “The Bird Trap” (1601), one of the most popular of the Brueghel subjects that also contributed to the new genre of winter landscape paintings. About 127 versions and copies of it exist.

If one painting can be singled out as the centerpiece of this exhibition, it is Pieter II’s “The Outdoor Wedding Dance” (ca 1610). Such a quintessential “genre” scene of the common people in joyful and carefree merrymaking at a wedding party was depicted by Pieter I and later in different ways by both of his sons. And thanks to their artistry, it was said to be one of the most popular subjects in Flemish painting at the beginning of the 17th century.

In fact, the gritty, but endearingly true-to-life animation of the people in this painting induced the organizers of the exhibition to create an animated video that has the figures actually begin to dance, eat and carouse with all the vitality Pieter II envisioned in his painting.

What did genre painting mean to the people of the day? The Flemish author and poet Felix Timmermans expressed it beautifully in an ode to Pieter Bruegel the Elder and his genre paintings: “Like the smell of apples, you are constant and fresh in our thoughts. You are our mirror; to know how we are, we just have to walk along the colourful path of your works, and we see ourselves.”

These are words that can stand as one essential definition of art in any era.

“Brueghel: 150 Years of Artistic Dynasty” runs until April 1. The Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in Ueno Park, Tokyo, is closed on Mondays.

The exhibition will also be held from April 24 to July 16 at the Toyota Municipal Museum of Art in Aichi Prefecture; from July 28 to Sept. 24 at the Sapporo Art Museum in Sapporo; from Oct. 8 to Dec. 16 at the Hiroshima Prefectural Art Museum in Hiroshima; and from Jan. 11 to March 31, 2019, at the Koriyama City Museum of Art in Fukushima Prefecture.

Visit for more information.

Reed is a Tokyo-based art journalist and translator in the field of fine and performing arts.Speech

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