This magnificent landscape (in perfect condition) depicts a Kermis or fair, during which a religious festival is celebrated by a rustic street party. The subject had been treated by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, in his Peasant Dance of c.1568 as a ‘Vanity Fair’ of drink-fuelled folly and vice. Jan Brueghel by contrast sees the Kermis as an emblem of the happiness of a well-ordered society at play. He adopts his father’s technique, of the universal panorama of life, with as many legible mini-incidents as space and ingenuity permit.
This small copper is an inexhaustible record of life, which its original owner must have spent many hours reading. In the background bystanders kneel before the religious procession approaching the church. The pub in the left background is full; amongst many groups we can just make out a ring of peasants playing dice on a tree-stump table. In the middle ground two groups of peasants dance in a ring to the sound of bagpipes and hurdy-gurdy; a pair of children are trying to learn the same moves. One elderly woman in the near group has a ring of keys held on a cord, which flies out from her waist as she spins. Behind the nearer ring to the right there is a toy-seller (who has recently sold a hobbyhorse), a beggar or peddler in red talking to a man and his wife who appear to be in biblical fancy dress.
The festivities are enjoyed by two groups of prosperous middle-class observers: one group of gallant young lovers (in the middle ground) have courtly manners which contrast with the peasant couple billing in the cart; the nearer group seems to include three generations of a single family, with their nursemaid. A jester is chased away (or possibly restrained with demands for an encore) by a group of children. Some beggars arrive at the extreme left foreground; children play with a ball across the centre; and an elderly couple share a ride home to the right, taking their flag and a basket full of produce.
It is difficult not to see this as a celebration of the abatement of the war and an expression of hope for a lasting peace. This is an early example of a type of image, which defined the hopes and ideals of the rule of the Archdukes Albert and Isabella. Later examples of this subject, also by Jan Brueghel (Prado, dated 1623), depict the Archdukes themselves watching the festivities, as the city-dwellers do here.
The distance here has exactly the same combination of Low Country foreground and Alpine distance seen in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s work. Jan Brueghel here loses the mountains in the clouds with an indistinctness especially admired by the English theorist Edward Norgate, who advises artists to ‘expresse your remonte Mountaines and grounds with a certaine airie Morbidezza or softnes, which is another remarkable grace and ornament of your worke’.
Catalogue entry adapted from Bruegel to Rubens: Masters of Flemish Painting, London, 2007
ProvenanceProbably purchased in Spain by Sir Daniel Arthur; his widow, who married George Bagnall; from whom purchased by Frederick, Prince of Wales, before July 1750
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A Festival with dancing Peasants and other Figures on a Country Road