There are at least two versions of Jan Brueghel the Elder’s “Road Scene with Figures” or “Village Street”. Rustic scenes, they depict jolly peasants enjoying life, but they may also conceal hidden hands.
Son of the Flemish Renaissance painter and printmaker Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Jan Brueghel (1568-1625) was born in Brussels but worked mainly in Antwerp. He became famous for bouquets of flowers, landscapes and allegories, and he was nicknamed “Velvet Brueghel” because of the delicacy of his brushwork.
Between 1589 and 1596 Brueghel travelled in Italy, visiting Naples, Rome and Milan, where he was received by Cardinal Federico Borromeo, who became a lifelong patron. Brueghel returned to Antwerp in 1596, becoming master of the Guild of St Luke in 1597 and dean in 1602. He visited Prague in 1604, obtaining commissions from Emperor Rudolf II.
In 1608 Brueghel is recorded as being in Brussels as court painter to the Habsburg Regents of the Netherlands, Archduke Albrecht VII and the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia. He kept this appointment until his death.
Many of his paintings are collaborations in which figures by other painters appear in landscapes painted by Brueghel. In other cases, he painted the figures into another artist’s landscape or architectural interior.
The most famous of his collaborators was Peter Paul Rubens. The two worked on about 25 paintings including a Battle of the Amazons (Potsdam), Mars Disarmed by Venus (Getty Museum), The Fall of Man (Mauritshuis), The Five Senses (Prado), and several images of the Madonna and Child within a Flower Garland (Munich, Paris, Madrid).
It is impossible now to know if the “Road Scene with Figures” (above left) – painted around 1611 – or the slightly earlier “Village Scene with Canal” (above right) are among those in which Rubens might have had a hand. Rubens was certainly living in Antwerp at the time, where he had established a new studio (now the Rubenshuis Museum) and where his most famous pupil was the young Anthony Van Dyck.
Rubens painted a portrait of his friend’s family in which Catharina, Jan’s second wife, stands at the centre. One of Catharina’s hands encircles Pieter’s shoulder, while the other clasps her daughter’s tiny fingers. The elegantly dressed Pieter is toying with his mother’s bracelet, perhaps a betrothal gift. The intimacy of this close family grouping is only matched by Rubens’ images of his own family.
Jan Brueghel the Elder died in the Antwerp cholera epidemic of 1625, which also claimed the lives of three of his children.