Newly Discovered Pieter Brueghel the Younger “Census at Bethlehem” in Paris Auction, March 2014
UPDATED with sale results.
A newly rediscovered Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Joos de Momper II is the prize lot of Piasa’s upcoming sale of Old Master Drawings and Paintings in Paris on March 31, 2014. As with so many of Pieter the Younger’s work, this picture is based on the 1566 original by his father, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, which is in the Musées Royaux Des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, Belgium. The scene is taken from the Bible:
And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered … So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. — Luke 2:1-5
Slightly more than a dozen versions of this painting exist – another was discovered in Africa last year and had been part of the same private English collection since the descendants bought it from Brueghel’s studio in 1611. That picture, which compositionally is much more faithful to Elder’s original, was discovered by the London-based Old Master painting dealer Johnny van Haeften and was featured at Frieze Masters in October 2013 with an asking price of £6 million, according to the Financial Times (illustrated below). The work did sell. The work at Piasa is estimated at €500,000-600,000.
The Piasa version is more closely focused on the gathering in front of the inn and the Holy Family. The ancillary figures along the right hand side and all the immediately adjacent additional buildings and nearly all of the additional figures are absent. There is only a cityscape in the background. According to the catalogue entry, Brueghel scholar Dr. Klaus Ertz has confirmed the attribution and in a certificate of authenticity dated December 4, 2013 says that Brueghel is responsible for the “animated scene” in the foreground, while Joos de Momper II is responsible for the background. Moreover, he dates the work to 1610-1620, which makes it a later version.
But is this painting really a religious work? Other artists portraying the dangerous trip by Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem for the census show the nativity itself, focusing on the adoration of the Christ child or the wondrous visit of the Magi. One could almost overlook that aspect of the painting. Indeed, it is not of the Holy Land, but of a village in Flanders, filled with the life and scenes that Brueghel knew so well. Children play on a frozen stream. A butcher prepared to slaughter a hog, furnishing the meat that the census-taker will offer to those who subscribe. And in the single scene that most commands the viewer’s attention, a crowd gathers at the census-taker’s house, pressing to declare themselves, to pay their taxes, to claim their share of the feast which is offered to those who have traveled far to fulfill a social duty. That house bears an official seal near its door: the double-headed eagle in black on an golden field, the insignia of the Hapsburg Empire. In Brueghel’s day Flemish attitudes towards the Hapsburgs were frankly hostile—they were associated with relentless war-making and heavy taxation. So is Brueghel’s message political, and not religious? Or could it not be both at the same time?
Horton’s article continues:
But there in the center of the painting is Mary, and a short distance ahead of her, Joseph. The villagers are, all of them, busy about their affairs. None seems to stop to notice the arrival of the Holy Family; their focus is elsewhere. Auden writes “passionately waiting/For the miraculous birth,” but I think he misdescribes the painting on this point. Brueghel is driven by irony. In fact they are consumed by their quotidian lives, they anticipate nothing. A miracle is being played before them, and they don’t stop to notice it. But this is the special genius of Brueghel—he casts a sharp eye on the life of a village. He misses nothing. And in everything he sees the misery and harshness of human existence, but also the potential for something better. His images are remarkably precise, they are unforgiving, they seem quickly executed. But there is always something of the spirit of the moment and of the person captured in them.
Can we really say that about the carefully staged graciousness of the Renaissance masters of Italy? Brueghel disregards the rules of form that the church would have him obey: the religious images should be central, and all attention should be dedicated to them. The divine status of the Virgin Mary should be signaled. But for Brueghel, the Holy Family is marked by its normalcy; they are a part of the village scene. The activities of the village swirl about them, not sensitive to the miracle about to unfold. This is Brueghel’s inner message–that we rush through our lives, attached to our needful things, accomplishing the roadmarkers of our careers, unconscious of the miracles of life that unfold about us. “The Census at Bethlehem” is a masterwork because of this message, quite apart from the technical skill and vision of its physical execution.