Bruegel the Elder

By Thaw, E. V. | New Criterion, December 2001 | Go to article overview
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Bruegel the Elder

Thaw, E. V., New Criterion

The exhibition of Bruegel the Elder's drawings and the engraved prints derived from them at the Metropolitan Museum of Art offers a true feast for both connoisseurs and iconographers. (1) The exhibit is of special importance to connoisseurs, as it offers insight into the precarious methods of historical attribution. As advertised widely among the reviewers and academics who pay attention to such things, the exhibition claims to include fifty-four out of a total of the sixty-one sheets that are surely by Pieter Bruegel the Elder himself. We can be grateful that certain sheets that were formerly called Bruegel the Elder by most art historians of my era are included as object lessons in the radical revision of the artist's graphic oeuvre in recent years.

This "new" Bruegel is based almost entirely on the work of the late Hans Mielke, whose catalogue raisonne of the drawings was published in Belgium in 1996. He radically reduced the number of authentic Bruegel drawings, deeming spurious the great alpine landscapes that were formerly claimed to spring from the artist's well-documented trip to Rome. (Some of these panoramic scenes have been universally admired as opening a new chapter in the art of landscape: their precise observations merge with the concept of the sublime. One of these drawings, given to Bowdoin College early in the nineteenth century, has long been thought to be the earliest old master drawing of any merit to reach our shores.)

Reductionism is the easiest part of art historical attribution. One can rather quickly build a reputation for discrimination and probity by denying the master's hand in works that cannot be proven genuine except by documentation. It is much harder to argue the reasons for accepting a work, especially a somewhat untypical one, and to be so persuasive that one's opinion achieves general acceptance. Thus reductionism plays a large part in the study of many artists' oeuvres. The exhibition "Rembrandt After 300 Years," for instance, which took place at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1969, began a process of revision of Rembrandt's work that continues today. The noted expert Seymour Slive of Harvard supposedly remarked: "one more conference on Rembrandt and he will cease to exist as an artist!" The most famous recent example of somewhat blind reductionism was the Dutch Rembrandt committee's removal of the Frick Collection's Polish Rider from the Rembrandt corpus. A change of personnel on the committee restored the mighty Polish Rider to authenticity --even though its provenance could not be traced before 1820 or so.

One of the drawings that seems most unlikely to match the accepted style of the elder Bruegel landscapes has recently been given to the Fogg Museum at Harvard. Although the excellent connoisseurs-cum-collectors George and Maida Abrams acquired the drawing as the work of another hand, Hans Mielke saw it on his deathbed, and the drawing has thus been included as one of the sixty-one anointed sheets.

The Morgan Library's great mountain landscape, one of the most admired drawings of my time, is perhaps the cause of Hans Mielke's whole rethinking. Mielke found a watermark in the paper on which the Morgan sheet is drawn that, it is claimed, is found only on paper dating from the mid-1580s and later. Bruegel died in 1569; he cannot, therefore, be the creator of this landscape. I would prefer to think that someone has misdated the earliest use of that watermarked paper rather than to believe that the Morgan drawing is by the "Master of the Mountain Landscapes" (as is the Bowdoin drawing also).

There is much more one could say about this kind of periodic revisionism in the scholarship of attributions. It seems to be a cyclical phenomenon: one day another drawing that must have been created before 1570 will turn up with a Strasbourg Lily watermark, and thus the whole set of mountain landscapes will be restored to Bruegel the Elder. In the meantime, some experts claim the "Master of the Mountain Landscapes" is either Jacob or Roelandt Savery, lesser artists of the next generation, who either were inspired by Bruegel or were outright faking him.

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