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Jan Brueghel the Elder

Flemish, 1568 - 1625

Bruegel the Elder, Jan

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Jan Brueghel, also known as "Velvet" Brueghel because of the delicacy of his brushwork, was an artist of remarkable versatility. He is justly renowned for his atmospheric landscapes and riverscapes, which come alive through the careful yet fluid strokes of his brush and the activities of the figures who populate his scenes.[1] However, he also painted flower bouquets, many of which include depictions of precious objects, as well as mythological, allegorical, and historical subjects and evocative scenes of hell. His refined and delicate images, often painted on copper, were highly valued by kings and princes throughout Europe.

Brueghel, who was the second son of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569), apparently received his early training in Brussels from his maternal grandmother, Mayken Verhulst. In 1590, when he was twenty-one, he traveled to Naples and subsequently resided in Rome from 1592 to 1594, working under the patronage of Cardinal Ascanio Colonna. There he met Paulus Bril (1554-1626), an artist from Antwerp working in Rome, whose brightly colored and delicately rendered small-scale paintings on copper greatly influenced his work. In Milan Brueghel met his lifelong patron, Cardinal Federigo Borromeo (1568-1631), who considered Brueghel's works "the lightness of nature itself."[2] Brueghel's correspondence with Borromeo has revealed much information about the artist's working procedures and his desire to demonstrate God's greatness through pictorial representations of nature.[3]

In 1597, shortly after returning to Antwerp, Jan joined Saint Luke's Guild and quickly established himself as an important member of the artistic community, serving as its dean in 1602. In 1599 he married Isabella de Jode, daughter of the engraver Gerard de Jode (1509-1591), with whom he had two children, Jan Brueghel the Younger (1601-1678) and a daughter, Paschasia (b. 1603). Isabella died shortly after Paschasia's birth, leaving Brueghel a widower with two small children. In 1604, after purchasing a large house on the Lange Nieuwstraat in Antwerp, the artist left for Prague, where he visited the court of Emperor Rudolf II. The following year he returned to Antwerp, where he married Katharina van Marienburg (d. 1627), with whom he had eight children.

In 1606 Brueghel became court painter to Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella, the regents in the southern Netherlands, an honor he retained for the rest of his life. The archduke gave Brueghel certain privileges, such as allowing him to live in Antwerp and granting him an exemption from duty in the civic guard. In 1613 he traveled to Holland with Peter Paul Rubens and Hendrik van Balen (1575-1632), where, in Haarlem, they were received by Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617).

Brueghel often collaborated with other artists, including Rubens. In their collaborative works Rubens painted the large-scale religious or allegorical figures and Brueghel provided the setting, including landscape, animals, flowers, and other still-life elements. Brueghel also painted figures in large landscapes by Joos de Momper (1564-1635).

Brueghel's first son, Jan, studied with his father and eventually ran a large workshop creating paintings in his father's style. Brueghel also taught Daniel Seghers (1590-1661). Brueghel's daughter, Paschasia, married the painter Jan van Kessel, who studied with his brother-in-law. Brueghel died of cholera in Antwerp in January 1625. [This is the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]

[1] See the enthusiastic praise for the artist's work in Cornelis de Bie, Het Gulden Cabinet van de edele vry schilderconst, Antwerp, 1661: 89, reprint Soest 1971.

[2] Gertraude Winkelmann-Rhein, The Paintings and Drawings of Jan "Flower" Bruegel, New York, 1969: 28.

[3] Pamela M. Jones, "Federico Borromeo as a Patron of Landscapes and Still Lifes. Christian Optimism in Italy ca. 1600," AB 70 (1988): 261-272, and Beatrijs Brenninkmeijer-de Rooij, Roots of seventeenth-century Flower Painting: Miniatures, Plant Books, Paintings, Leiden, 1996: 47-71.

Artist Bibliography

Mander, Karel van. Het Schilder-boeck. Haarlem, 1604: 234.
Houbraken, Arnold. De Groote Schouburgh der Nederlantsche Konstschilders en Schilderessen. 3 vols. in 1. The Hague, 1753 (Reprint: Amsterdam, 1976): 1:85-87.
Winkelmann-Rhein, Gertraude. The Paintings and Drawings of Jan "Flower" Bruegel. New York, 1969.
Bie, Cornelis de. Het gulden cabinet van de edel vry schilderconst. Edited by Gerard Lemmens. Reprint of Antwerp, 1661/1662. Soest, 1971: 89-91.
Ertz, Klaus. Jan Brueghel der Ältere (1568-1625): Die Gemälde mit kritischem Oeuvrekatalog. Cologne, 1979.
Jones, Pamela M. "Federico Borromeo as a Patron of Landscapes and Still Lifes. Christian Optimism in Italy ca. 1600." The Art Bulletin 70 (1988): 261-272.
Brenninkmeijer-de Rooij, Beatrijs. Roots of seventeenth-century Flower Painting: Miniatures, Plant Books, Paintings. Leiden, 1996.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Flemish Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2005: 14.

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