In the Spotlight: Jan Brueghel, Father and Son

Jan Brueghel the Elder, Still Life of Flowers in a Stoneware Vase, c. 1610, oil on oak, 67 x 51 cm. Private Collection

In the grey depths of an Ottawa winter, nothing is more welcome than a splash of colour and a few harbingers of spring. Now on view at the National Gallery of Canada, a pair of floral still lifes dazzle the eye while also offering visitors an opportunity to compare works by father and son.

Bouquet of Flowers in a Faience Vase (c. 1625) by Jan Brueghel the Younger (1601–1678) has long been part of the national collection, and is well known to those familiar with the European galleries. Visitors will now also be able to enjoy Still Life of Flowers in a Stoneware Vase (c. 1610) by his father, Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625), on loan to the Gallery thanks to the generosity of a private collector.

The Brueghel (sometimes spelled Bruegel) family is perhaps the most famous dynasty of Flemish painters. Jan the Elder was the son of the great Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a brilliant and inventive painter of landscapes and scenes of daily life. Jan himself was celebrated across Europe for his small-scale paintings, and his still lifes were among his most valued works. Based in Antwerp, he built up a successful practice there, and sometimes collaborated with other painters, including his friend, the great Peter Paul Rubens. Nicknamed “Velvet Brueghel” for his delicate touch, Jan the Elder’s legacy was later carried on by his son. Although a less gifted painter than his father or grandfather, Jan the Younger was nonetheless able to perpetuate the family business well into the second half of the 17th century.

Jan Brueghel the Elder, Still Life of Flowers in a Stoneware Vase (detail), c. 1610, oil on oak, 67 x 51 cm. Private Collection

Jan the Elder’s still lifes were much applauded by his contemporaries. Not only did he capture the amazing variety and bounty of Nature, viewed as God’s creation, but he captured it with such skill that his work was sometimes said to rival Nature itself. His pictures generally included relatively common blooms, as well as great rarities. He was particularly fond of including variegated tulips, reflecting the importance of these plants to the local economy. So valuable were tulips in the Low Countries that, during the “tulipmania” of 1636–37, literal fortunes were made and lost overnight through speculation in rare bulbs.

Jan likely began with studies of individual flowers, then painted from his bank of images, assembling his chosen flowers into a composition. He could then capitalize on his creativity by making, or by having his workshop make, copies and variations on this work. We can think of this in terms of “branding”: a creative head directing a team of assistants to create a recognizable product, offered for sale in a range of quality. 

For all his fame at the time, relatively little is known about Jan the Elder. Although there are many paintings to examine, there are also many works by 17th-century imitators, to say nothing of similar works by his son. Studying the family’s output is made more difficult by the fact that much remains in private hands, and few paintings have been assessed using the modern analytical techniques that might provide information on how a work was created, or its date. Even less is known about Jan the Younger and his work.

Jan Brueghel the Younger, Bouquet of Flowers in a Faience Vase (detail), c. 1625, oil on oak, 73 x 54.6 cm. NGC

In the painting currently on loan to the Gallery, Jan the Elder’s simple ceramic vase holds an entire garden’s worth of flowers: roses, irises, tulips, fritillaria and more, silhouetted against a deep black background that emphasizes the rich colours and sharply observed forms. The detail and precision of the brushwork encourage close examination of the flowers — along with the flies, spiders and butterflies hiding among the blooms.

Interestingly, this work exists in at least five versions. Examples can be found in virtually identical form at the Musée d’art et d’histoire in Geneva, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England. Each of the five versions differs in size, the placement of the blooms is not exactly the same, and the work on loan to the Gallery includes a few different flowers in place of those seen in the other works. How were such variants made? Clearly, Jan developed a means of working that could both replicate a model and produce subtle variations. Notably, the Still Life has pentiments — changes made as the artist painted: additional evidence that this was not a simple exercise in copying. Perhaps we should seek for an analogy in music, and think of all these versions as variations on a theme.

In the case of the Gallery’s Bouquet, the faience vase, decorated with a female figure personifying water, was a favourite motif of both father and son. There are other examples of this work as well, with the vase shown from different angles and including different bouquets. The Gallery purchased this painting as the work of Jan the Elder in 1963, but some years ago changed its attribution to his son, reflecting current understanding of both men’s work. It was likely created under his direction by his workshop.

Jan Brueghel the Younger, Bouquet of Flowers in a Faience Vase, c. 1625, oil on oak, 73 x 54.6 cm. NGC

Comparison of the two works provides visitors and scholars alike with an opportunity to explore both artists’ strategies, and assess authorship based on the touch of the brush, style, sensibility and technique. It can be an interesting exercise in connoisseurship because, while similar in subject matter and style, the two works are subtly distinct. Each artist used the brush differently to describe the forms of flowers, leaves and stems, texture, or the glint of light; and each painter had a different sense of the aesthetic impact his brushstrokes and approach would have. The two works also differ in how each artist has addressed negative and positive space, composition, balance and colour.

Despite their differences, however, both works are a feast for the eyes, glowing brightly against dark backgrounds — the flowers fresh, vibrant and alive, just as they must have been when first painted.

Visitors are invited to compare the two works, on view in Gallery C205a. 

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