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 Jan (the Elder) Brueghel  (1568 - 1625)

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Lived/Active: Flemish/Belgium/Netherlands      Known for: history, still life, allegory and mythology scene painting

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Painter and draughtsman and son of Pieter Bruegel I, Jan Brueghel the Elder is famous for his small-scale history paintings, some of which were executed on copper, exquisite flower still-lifes, allegorical and mythological scenes and various types of landscapes, including imaginary mountain landscapes, forest interiors, villages and country roads, ports, river views, seascapes, hunting pieces, battles and scenes of Hell and the underworld.

Because of the early death of his father, Jan received his first training in watercolour painting from his maternal grandmother, Mayken Verhulst. According to van Mander, Pieter Goetkindt (d 1583) taught Jan to paint in oils. In 1589 Jan travelled to Italy via Cologne. He was in Naples in 1590, and from 1592 to 1594 he lived in Rome under the patronage of Cardinal Ascanio Colonna. In 1595 and 1596 Jan visited Milan at the insistence of his lifelong patron, Cardinal Federico Borromeo.

He returned to Antwerp by October 1596, and the following year he became a master in the Antwerp painters' corporation. He married Isabella de Jode (d Antwerp, 1603), daughter of the engraver Gerard de Jode, on 23 January 1599, and on 13 September 1601 their first son, Jan Breughel the younger, was born. Jan received his Antwerp citizenship in the same year and became subdeacon of the painters' guild, of which he eventually served as dean in 1602. His wife Isabella died suddenly in 1603, possibly caused by the birth of their second child, a daughter named Paschasia, who later married the artist Hieronymus van Kessel II.

In 1604 Jan purchased a house called 'De Meerminne' (The Mermaid) in the Lange Nieuwestraat in Antwerp, travelled to Prague and returned to Antwerp by the end of the same year. He married Catharina van Marienberghe (d Namur, 1627) in April 1605, who gave him eight children. In 1606 he went to Nuremberg, and two years later, in 1608, he was mentioned in Brussels as court painter of the Archdukes Albert and Isabella, the Habsburg regents of the Netherlands, a function he kept until his death. He also received commissions from Emperor Rudolph II and King Sigismund III of Poland.

Around 1613 Jan travelled to the northern Netherlands on official business in the company of Rubens and Hendrick van Balen. On 27 August 1615 the Antwerp magistrates presented four paintings by Jan Breughel to the Archdukes Albert and Isabella. In 1618 the city magistrates commissioned the 12 major painters of Antwerp to produce a representative sample of their painterly abilities for the Archdukes. But instead of each working on a separate painting, artists such as Rubens, Frans Snyders, Josse de Momper the younger, Hendrick van Balen, Frans Francken the younger and Sebastiaen Vrancx all collaborated on one single project, the Allegory of the Five Senses, under the direction of Jan Breughel. Unfortunately, these paintings were destroyed by fire in 1713. In 1619 Jan purchased a house called 'Den Bock' (The Billy-goat) in the Arembergstraat in Antwerp. Jan died from a cholera epidemic, which also claimed the lives of three of his children, Pieter, Elizabeth and Maria. On 3 June and 23 June 1627 Jan's estate was divided among his widow and all his surviving children from his first and second marriages. Executors of Jan's will were Rubens, Pauwel van Halmale, Hendrick van Balen and Cornelis Schut.

Unlike his brother Pieter the younger, Jan did not merely imitate his father. His early compositions show transformations of his father's style into his own delicate miniaturistic idiom. Jan Breughel's landscapes contain numerous figures, either in everyday dress or representing biblical, mythological or allegorical subjects. An early Wooded Landscape with a Deer Hunt (c. 1593; Vienna, Ksthist. Mus., 458; on dep., Innsbruck, Schloss Ambras) as well as one of the several wooded landscapes that Jan painted c. 1597 (Milan, Pin. Ambrosiana, 74.d-18) provide evidence for the debate that concerns Jan's artistic debt to the famous landscapist Gillis van Coninxloo III. Many of Jan's early landscapes are painted from a high vantage-point (bird's eye perspective) with a panoramic and far-reaching horizon in the Weltlandschaft tradition of Joachim Patinir, Herri met de Bles and Cornelis van Dalem. His early style is exemplified, for instance, in the Departure of St Paul to Caesarea (1596; Raleigh, NC Mus. A., 52.9.92) as well as in the Crucifixion (1598; Munich, Alte Pin., 823) and in several versions of the Adoration of the Magi (e.g. London, N.G., 3547; Vienna, Ksthist. Mus., 617; St Petersburg, Hermitage, no. 3090), all datable between 1598 and 1600. (Intriguingly, after 1600 Jan no longer painted the latter subject, although he frequently drew on ideas or compositions by his father and freely adapted motifs from such predecessors as Albrecht Dürer, Nikolas Manuel Deutsch, Jacopo Zucchi, Rosso Fiorentino, Luca Signorelli and Jacopo Tintoretto.)

Jan Breughel the elder also copied some of the Roman townscapes of the Flemings Paul and Matthijs Bril, with whose art he must have become familiar during his sojourn in Rome. There he also met the German Hans Rottenhammer, with whom he collaborated for a short period on several paintings, such as two small paintings on copper, the Rest on the Flight into Egypt (c. 1595; The Hague, Mauritshuis, 283) and the Descent into Limbo (1597; The Hague, Mauritshuis, 265). Around and shortly after 1600 he occasionally painted hallucinatory scenes of Hell, such as Juno in the Underworld (Dresden, Gemäldegal. Alte Meister, 877), several versions of the Temptation of St Anthony (e.g. Karlsruhe, Ksthalle, 808; Vienna, Ksthist. Mus., 667; Dresden, Gemäldegal. Alte Meister, 878) and several versions of Aeneas and the Sibyl in Hell (e.g. Budapest, Mus. F.A., 551 and 553; Vienna, Ksthist. Mus., 817). These compositions are reminiscent of those of Hieronymus Bosch and Jan Mandijn. An equally fantastic Triumph of Death (1597; Graz, Alte Gal., 58) was clearly based on a prototype by his father, Pieter Bruegel the elder.

Both the subject-matter and the style of six small landscape paintings on copper (Milan, Pin. Ambrosiana, 74, a-15; 74, e-17; 74, b-16; 74, d-18; 74, e-19; 74, f-20), possibly commissioned by Cardinal Federico Borromeo and dating from Jan's Milanese period (1595-6), give an accurate insight into Jan's own individual interests, possibilities and stylistic idiosyncrasies towards the turn of the century. The paintings are all framed together and include a Scene of Hell, followed by a Mountainous Landscape with a Monk Reading, a Rocky Landscape with a Hermit, Christ in a Storm at Sea, a Clearing in a Forest and, finally, an Allegory of the Elements, of which the figures were probably painted by Hendrick van Balen. After the turn of the century Jan continued to paint panoramic landscapes with a wide horizon, high vantage-point and many figures. Examples include the Harbour with the Preaching of Christ (Munich, Alte Pin., 187), the crowded Fish Market (1603; Munich, Alte Pin., 1889), the Fish Market at the Border of a River (1605; Munich, Alte Pin., 1883), the Calling of SS Peter and Andrew (1608; Dresden, Gemäldegal. Alte Meister, 883) and another, equally crowded harbour scene, with the Continence of Scipio (c. 1609; Munich, Alte Pin., 827), the latter three all on copper.

No less than 106 paradise landscapes are attributed to Jan Breughel the elder (see fig.), most of which are probably by his hand, including several versions of Noah's Ark (e.g. Budapest, Mus. F.A.; London, Apsley House, WM 1637, 1948) and an Adam and Eve in Paradise (The Hague, Mauritshuis, 253), of which Breughel painted the landscape and animals, while Rubens painted the figures. The theme was varied in several exotic paradise landscapes (e.g. Berlin, Gemäldegal., 742; Rome, Gal. Doria-Pamphili, 341) with Adam and Eve in the background.

The allegorical series of five canvases with the Five Senses (see fig.), as well as two pendants, one with the Allegory of Sight and Smell and the other the Allegory of Touch, Hearing and Taste (all 1617-18; Madrid, Prado, 1394-8, 1403-4), are probably related in composition and iconography to the lost commission of 1618 from the Antwerp city magistrates. Jan also painted allegorical landscapes, such as four paintings on copper of The Seasons (1616; Bayreuth, Neues Schloss, 13709-12). Jan's multifigured allegorical paintings are collaborative works, such as the Allegory of the Elements (Vienna, Ksthist. Mus., 815), with figures by Hendrick van Balen.

Flower-pieces with a distinct vanitas connotation also formed an important part of Jan Breughel's oeuvre. They include bouquets in various types of vases (e.g. Antwerp, Kon. Mus. S. Kst., 643; Vienna, Ksthist. Mus., 558) and wooden vessels (e.g. Vienna, Ksthist. Mus., 570), floral garlands with vanitas still-lifes (e.g. Brussels, Mus. A. Anc., 1015), baskets and dishes of flowers (e.g. Madrid, Prado, 1422) and garlands of flowers surrounding sacred figures or scenes, which were usually painted by others (e.g. Madrid, Prado, 1418). The floral bouquets, in particular, are quite numerous. The elaborate vases often contain flowers that do not bloom at the same time of the year, and though they appear to be realistic, they are, in fact, a careful combination of drawn models, with the blossoms always at their height of perfection. This cumulative practice is elucidated, among other sources, in Jan's letter of April 1606 to Cardinal Federico Borromeo in Milan, in which he explained to the Cardinal that he had begun a bouquet of flowers for him, many of which were unknown and extremely rare and that he even went to Brussels to draw some flowers from life not to be found in Antwerp. His earliest flower-piece (Milan, Pin. Ambrosiana, 66) was possibly painted that same year. The earlier assumption that the Bouquet with Irises (Vienna, Ksthist. Mus., 548) should be dated 1599 is no longer generally accepted.

Many drawings by Jan Breughel the elder have survived. Most represent landscapes such as appear in his paintings, but they also include a few still-lifes and history subjects and several vigorously sketched study sheets. He seems to have drawn exclusively with the pen and brush, occasionally combining brown and blue washes in a manner also practised by many of his contemporaries, such as David Vinckboons or Paulus van Vianen

It is possible that Jan Breughel operated a workshop comparable in size to that of Rubens, which would explain the more than 3000 paintings that were formerly ascribed to him. In reality, however, no more than c. 450 can be correctly attributed to Jan, of which at least 58 are the result of his collaboration with Josse de Momper. Among the other artists with whom he collaborated were Rubens, van Balen, Frans Snyders, Vrancx, Hendrik de Clerck, Frans Francken the younger, Pieter van Avont and Tobias Verhaecht. The Antwerp still-life painter and priest Daniel Seghers was one of Jan's most famous pupils.

His reputation as 'Velvet Breughel', 'Paradise Breughel' or 'Flower Breughel' was firmly established in his day, and he was mentioned in leading 17th- and 18th-century biographies, such as Karel van Mander's Schilder-boeck ([1603]-1604), Cornelis de Bie's Het gulden cabinet van de edel vry schilder const (Lier, 1661), André Félibien's Entretiens sur la vie et sur les ouvrages des plus excellents peintres (Paris, 1666-88), Arnold van Houbraken's De groote schouburgh der Nederlantse konstschilders en schilderessen (Amsterdam, 1718-21) and Jan Campo Weyerman's De levens-beschryvingen der Nederlandsche kunstschilders en schilderessen (The Hague, 1729). Moreover, when Duke John Ernest of Saxony visited Antwerp in 1614, the chronicler Johann Wilhelm Neumayr described Jan Breughel the elder and Rubens as the two most prominent painters of the city?an assessment confirmed by the city's choice of Breughel to coordinate the commissions for the Archdukes.

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Jan Brueghel, The Elder, was born in 1568, probably in Antwerp, Belgium.  He was the second son of Pieter Brueghel the Elder and was called the "Velvet Brueghel."

Jan Brueghel, The Elder, made his career in Antwerp and was known for his still lifes and for his landscapes.  He was a friend of Peter Paul Rubens and collaborated with him on some of Rubens' paintings.

He specialized in small wooded scenes that were finely finished and brightly colored. His style was perpetuated by his sons Jan Brueghel II and Ambrosius Brueghel, whose sons in turn carried on the tradition into the 18th century.  He died in 1625.   

Written and compiled by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher from Laguna Woods, California.

From the internet, WebMuseum, Paris

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