In this Spotlight, we delve into the world of Southern Netherlandish painter Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625), and one of his masterpieces treasured by the Klesch Collection, River Landscape with Fish Sellers.
Jan was the second son of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525–1569), the great luminary of Northern Renaissance painting. Unlike his elder brother Pieter the Younger (1564–1638), Jan did not imitate his father’s work. He developed his own distinct miniaturist style characterised by delicate brushwork, earning him the sobriquet ‘Velvet’ Brueghel. Jan embodied the Renaissance ideals of a pictor doctus: he was an erudite artist informed not only by artistic tradition, but also by the intellectual currents of his time. His work often reflects religious motifs, but it also incorporates a nearly scientific interest in the precise observation of nature and its representation in painting. This approach endeared Brueghel to numerous patrons from the upper echelons of society, who shared his beliefs that the visible world is a manifestation of divine beauty. For instance, during his travels in Italy from c. 1590 to 1596, Brueghel met Cardinal Federico Borromeo (1564–1631), who wrote extensively, throughout their longstanding relationship, about Brueghel’s great ability to represent God’s wisdom and creativity. In 1606, Brueghel was appointed as court painter to Archduke Albert (1559–1621) and Archduchess Isabella (1566–1633), whose interest in science motivated them to transform their palace in Brussels into a renowned centre for natural and botanical science.
While this pictorial innovator was celebrated for his versatility across many genres, upon his return to Antwerp from Italy in 1596, Brueghel established himself as the most accomplished landscape painter of the Flemish Baroque. The Klesch Collection’s River Landscape serves as a prime example of Brueghel’s ‘storytelling’ landscapes, and it is among his most influential compositions. The scene seems to be set along the banks of the Scheldt, Flanders’ principal river that runs through the port city of Antwerp, identified by the recognisable tower of the Cathedral of Our Lady, faintly visible in the distant haze. Executed on copper, Brueghel’s smooth support of choice for intricate scenes, the small work radiates a jewel-like quality that seems untouched by time, as if it were painted just yesterday. It demonstrates Brueghel’s intricate technique of vividly describing nature, with each fish in the foreground and every minuscule leaf on the trees exquisitely detailed. Brueghel’s unique expansive view and atmospheric play of light and shadow grant centre stage to the divine beauty of nature. Brueghel’s is a world in which nature and people coexist harmoniously, the natural elements gracefully framing the figures, as they interact with their surroundings. As his patron Borromeo wrote: ‘The pleasure I take in looking at these painted views has always seemed to me as beautiful as open and wide views [of nature].’