Pieter Brueghel the Younger (Brussels 1564 - 1637/8 Antwerp), The Tower of Babel. Photo Sotheby's
oil on oak panel: 145 by 176.5 cm.; 57 by 69 1/2 in. Estimation 2,000,000-3,000,000 GBP. Unsold
PROVENANCE: With Gallery Nicholson, New York, 1951, no. 5;
E.Z. Richards, England;
By whom sold ('The Property of E.Z. Richards, Esq.'), London, Sotheby's, 6 July 1966, lot 127, for £6,000 to Julius Weitzner;
With Julius Weitzner, London;
With Hallsborough Gallery, London, 1969;
Giuseppe Nehmad, Milan, 1969;
Charles de Pauw (1920-1984), Brussels;
His deceased sale, London, Sotheby's, 9 April 1986, lot 23;
Where acquired by the father of the present owners
EXHIBITED: Taichung, Taiwan Museum of Art, The Golden Age of Flemish Painting, 25 June 1988 - 30 September 1988;
Brussels, BBL Bank, A l'ombre de Babel, L'art du Proche-Orient ancien dans les collections belges, 3 February 1995 - 26 March 1995;
Essen, Villa Hügel, Breughel-Brueghel, Pieter Brueghel d. J. - Jan Brueghel d. Ä.: flämische Malerei un 1600,
Tradition und Fortschritt, 16 August - 16 November 1997, no. 96;
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Breughel-Brueghel, Pieter Brueghel d. J. - Jan Brueghel d. Ä.: flämische Malerei un 1600, Tradition und Fortschritt, 7 December 1997 - 14 April 1998, no. 96;
Graz, Eggenberg Palace, Der Turmbau zu Babel, Ursprung und Vielfalt von Sprache und Schrift, 5 April 2003 - 5
LITTERATURE: C. de Tolnay, "La Seconde Tour de Babel de Pierre Bruegel l'Ancien", in Annuaire des Musées Royaux des BeauxArts de Belgique, vol. 1, 1938, p. 114;
H. Minkowski, Das Turm zu Babel, 1960, p. 55, reproduced fig. 158;
G. Marlier, Pierre Breughel le Jeune, Brussels 1969, pp. 95-6, reproduced p. 97, fig. 39;
K. Demus, in K. Demus et al., Katalog der Gemäldegalerie Wien. Flämische Malerie von van Eyck bis Pieter Bruegel d. Ä, Vienna 1981, p. 80;
S. Grieten, "De iconografie van de Toren van Babel bij Pieter Bruegel: traditie, vernieuwing en navolging", in De Toren van Babel in de schilderkunst der Zuidelijke Nederlanden, Louvain 1986, p. 130, reproduced fig. 18;
H. Minkowski, Vermutumgen über den Turm zu Babel, Freren 1991, p. 175, no. 214;
K. Ertz et al., Breughel-Brueghel, Pieter Brueghel d. J. - Jan Brueghel d. Ä.: flämische Malerei un 1600, Tradition und Fortschritt, exhibition catalogue, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, 7 December 1997 - 14 April 1998; pp. 316-318, cat. no. 96, reproduced p. 317;
Ph. and F. Roberts-Jones, Pierre Bruegel l'Ancien, Paris 1998, p. 250, reproduced fig. 282;
K. Ertz, Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere (1564-1637/38). Die Gemälde mit kritischem Oeuvrekatalog, Lingen 2000, vol. I, pp. 275-277, 278, 231 and 281, cat. no. E 204*;
W. Seipel et al., Der Turmbau zu Babel, Ursprung und Vielfalt von Sprache und Schrift, exhibition catalogue, Graz, Eggenberg Palace, 5 April 2003 - 5 October 2003, t. I, pp. 141-142, cat. no. 1.1.19, reproduced p. 143.
NOTE DE CATALOGUE: This is one of Pieter Brueghel the Younger's most monumental and imposing pictures, and not only because of its overwhelming subject. It is also one of his earliest pictures: one that belongs as thoroughly to the 16th century as his later kermesses belong to the 17th. Pieter Brueghel the Younger was an outstandingly successful painter in his own time, and his works remain extremely sought-after today. His career and enduring reputation was based on the production of paintings, like this one, that are based on compositions by his father, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. This is however one of Pieter Brueghel the Younger's rarest subjects, known only in this painting and one other. Pieter Bruegel's original, painted in 1563, one year before the birth of his son, forms part of the great collection of works by Bruegel in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (see fig 1).1
Its first owner was the celebrated collector Nicolaes Jonghelinck, who in 1566 gave it to the City of Antwerp with other works by Bruegel as guarantee for a loan.
Later, like Bruegel's Massacre of the Innocents, it entered the collection of the Emperor Rudolf II in Prague, possiblyby inheritance from his brother Archduke Ernst, Stadholder of the Netherlands (who died in 1595), and certainly by 1604. It subsequently returned to The Netherlands when it passed into the collection of the Archduke Leopold Wilhelm. Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted a second, smaller version, now in the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen in Rotterdam. It differs in many respects (for example the city is omitted entirely), and probably dates from a few years later, although probably before 1568.2
Several variants of Bruegel's Vienna original are known, and have been claimed as the work of Pieter Brueghel the Younger (none derive from the Rotterdam picture). Klaus Ertz excludes all but two of them: the present picture and another of similar size formerly with Galerie Sankt Lucas in Vienna (before 1989).3
Of the two, Dr. Ertz has only had the opportunity of examining the present picture, which he considers the prime version by Pieter Brueghel, dating from 1585-95.4
Since his father's original was almost certainly still in Antwerp, we can be confident that Pieter Brueghel the Younger based this picture on direct knowledge of it; with few other compositions can one make such an assertion. He thus probably painted it only twenty or thirty years after his father's Vienna picture, in contrast to most of his paintings, which date from between forty and seventy years after his father's originals. There are numerous small differences between Pieter Brueghel the Younger's picture and his father's work. These changes have been itemized by Klaus Ertz.5
Among the most significant is the deepening of the foreground, and in particular the considerable extension of the flat ground between the foot of the tower and the woodland nearer the viewer. This only partly accounts for the considerably larger dimensions of Pieter Brueghel the Younger's present painting.
The composition belongs to the 16th-century tradition of the World Landscape whose origins go back well before Pieter Bruegel the Elder's time, to Patinir and to Altdorfer.6
This modern phrase denotes the illimitable space described by a landscape seen from a high viewpoint, which extends towards a broad and extremely distant horizon which does not act as a boundary to the visible world but which implies its indefinite extension. The vast depicted space serves as a stage for the full extent of Man's activities.
The subject of this work is taken from the Book of Genesis (II, 1-9), when, in a plain in the land of Shinar: "And they said to one another, go to, let us make brick and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone and slime formortar. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth". God came, and did indeed scatter them upon the face of the whole earth, naming the unfinished tower Babel. Nimrod, the mighty hunter, a legendary conqueror of Babylon in the 2nd millennium B.C., was traditionally held to have supervised the construction of the tower; he is seen here dressed as a ruler, with his entourage, in the lower left corner. Clearly, this subject would have been seen as an image of human pride and presumption in the face of God, but it may also have been in the 16th-century as a symbol of the disunity of Christianity following the Reformation.7
This subject was known before Pieter Bruegel the Elder's time, for example in drawings and prints after Maerten van Heemskerck, but it was undoubtedly his picture which inspired innumerable treatments of the theme in the last threedecades of the 16th century and well into the following one.8
Virtually all of these are indebted to Pieter Bruegel in their composition, with Nimrod usually depicted in the lower left or right corner. Variations occur in the form of the tower, which is sometimes shown cone-shaped, or pyramidal along dissecting axes. Pieter Bruegel the Elder's treatment of the subject must have been greeted with immediate popularity, since a derivation of the Rotterdam version was painted by Lucas van Valckenborch as early as 1568.9
UNDER-DRAWING: An examination using infra-red reflectography (I.R.R.) was conducted by Art Access Research.10
It reveals different styles of under-drawing in different parts of the painted surface. There is little detailed under-drawing in the foreground, which may indicate that the arrangement of the staffage was not planned at an early stage. The details ofthe town to the left on the other hand was clearly worked out in great detail, because the I.R.R. scan reveals more detail in the under-drawing than is visible in the finished painting. This is also true of the details of the shipping to the right. The details of the tower were also worked out with meticulous care in under-drawing on the primed panel before the painting was started. For the most part the under-drawing is clearly drawn freehand, and is quite unlike the tracingof outline which is what I.R.R. consistently reveals in the under-drawing of Pieter Brueghel the Younger's paintings in the 17th century, although it is possible that this technique was used here for the broad outline of the arcading of the tower.
SUPPORT: The panel is formed of six planks of oak aligned horizontally. A tree-ring analysis conducted by Ian Tyers of Dendrochronological Consultancy Ltd. indicates that five of the six have been shown to be Baltic oak, and it may bereasonably assumed that the sixth is as well.11
The most recent hardwood rings are of 1549 from boards C & D, and 1548 from board E. The earliest plausible felling date is thus after 1557. Tyers concludes that the panel is highly likely to pre-date 1600, and the panel could have been ready for use from the mid-1660s onwards. This supports Ertz's early dating of the present painting.
PROVENANCE: Marlier lists this picture as with Galerie de Boer in 1936, but Ertz is unsure if that picture is the present work (his no. E 204), or the ex-Galerie Sankt Lucas picture (his no. E 205). A careful comparison with the photograph taken at De Boer in 1936 (and used for the reproduction in their 1936 catalogue), and the present picture, including the photograph taken of it when at Sotheby's in 1966, reveal numerous differences that cannot be accounted for by restoration. Some details, such as the uppermost sailing ship visible in the centre-right edge of the present work, and the details of the moored vessels below it to the left, are legible in the under-drawing, and confirm the differences between the two paintings. It is therefore certain that there are indeed two works, and that the present picture is not the one that was with De Boer in 1936, nor later with Galerie Sankt Lucas in Vienna. Since E.Z. Richards Esq. was the seller in the 1966 Sotheby's sale there is no reason to assume that he was the owner of the painting prior to 1951, when it was owned by Gallery Nicholson in New York (Ertz rather confusingly states that it was owned by Richards after 1937).
LITERATURE: Ertz's codified catalogue appends an E to his catalogue number to denote Echt, which means a Genuine work in his opinion. He also uses F = Fraglich, meaning doubtful, and A = Abgeschrieben, meaning literally de-attributed, or not genuine. An asterisk* means that he has inspected the picture in the original; otherwise his opinions are from photographs. For the avoidance of doubt, he has inspected this picture in the original (indeed, he chose it for his 1997 exhibition), and he considers it Echt.
NOMENCLATURE: It is usually assumed that Pieter Bruegel the Elder omitted the "h" from his surname to Latinize it when he went to Italy. Our spelling of his name follows his signature. His son Pieter changed the spelling of his surname in his signature from Brueghel to Breughel in circa 1616, but his brother Jan Brueghel the Elder and his nephew Jan Brueghel the Younger seem to have retained the earlier form, which we have used when referring to the family, or to compositions used by both Pieter the Elder and Pieter the Younger.
1. Signed and dated: BRVEGEL FE. M.CCCCC.L.XIII; oil on panel, 114 by 155 cm., inv. no. 1026; see, for example, K. Demus, in W. Seipel ed., Pieter Bruegel the Elder at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Vienna 1997, pp.56-67, with many detail colour reproductions.
2. Neither signed nor dated, oil on panel, 60 by 74.5 cm., inv. 2443; see F. Lammertse, in J.H. ter Molen ed., VanEyck to Bruegel. Dutch and Flemish painting in the collection of the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, exhibition catalogue, Rotterdam 1994, pp. 400-3, no. 95, reproduced.
3. See Ertz, under Literature, 2000, pp. 275, 278 and 281, cat. no. E 205, reproduced figs. 201 and 202.
4. He provisionally assigns a similar dating to the ex-Galerie Sankt Lucas picture.
5. See Ertz, op. cit., p. 278, Motiv 1-12.
6. See W.S. Gibson, "Mirror of the Earth". The World Landscape in sixteenth-Century Flemish Painting, Princeton 1989.
7. See Gibson, op. cit., p. 67.8. See Minkowski, 1991: his book is devoted to treatments of this subject and lists several hundred paintings, drawings and prints.
9. Now in Munich, Alte Pinakothek, inv. 1642. See A. Wied, Lucas und Marten van Valckenborch..., Freren 1990, pp.31, 33, 49 and 131, no. 6, reproduced p. 132. Lucas van Valckenborch painted at least four versions of this subject, and his brother Marten at least two.
10. A complete set of I.R.R. images is available on request, and further images will be posted in the online catalogue.
11. A copy of the report is available on request.
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