BRUEGHEL, Jan the Elder
(b. ca. 1568, Brussel, d. 1625, Antwerpen)

Villagers on their Way to Market

Ink on paper, 168 x 284 mm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

Jan Brueghel, the youngest son of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, was as finely gifted a draughtsman as he was a painter specialising in floral still-lifes and landscapes. Starting from his father's work he created a number of new types of composition which herald the realistic landscape style in the Netherlands.

The drawing discussed here, presumably done between 1615 and 1619, represents peasants passing by on a small hill surrounded by trees, with a spreading landscape to the back. This structure had already been used much earlier in Flemish art, but Brueghel gave it a more contemporary expression by harmoniously combining the motifs of the centrally positioned country road and the distant view. The space is developed in a single movement along the diagonals, provided by the converging lines of trees, up to the vanishing point. Above it unfolds an open firmament giving the impression of endless space. The foreground is enlivened by picturesque and true-to-life scenes: a man feeding hay to two horses, women carrying baskets and jugs.

This snapshot of daily life in the country is transformed by Brueghel's refined taste into a poetic mood picture. The colouring of the drawing, with its characteristic combination of brown and blue ink, certainly helps this process. The outlines of the figures and the thin tree trunks, weaving their way decoratively into the sky, are drawn with great delicacy and detail, using sharp pen lines. Subtly applied blue ink provides coloured accents in the tops of the trees and in the background, which is constructed entirely with a brush tip in broad lines and small blurred dots, giving the drawing a muffled, refined character typical of many of Brueghel's miniature pictures.

Other signed versions of the composition are known, directly related to paintings for which they are probably preparatory studies. This picture may well be such a study. It could also be an independent work of art, exhibiting a finesse which would have made it very sought-after by contemporary collectors.