Although at first sight a calm pastoral scene, this picture is full of activity. A river winds through a rocky landscape, seemingly flowing from the background into the foreground. The serpentine shape in the water on the left is apparently a raft of logs being floated downstream from the forests in the distant mountains
In the lower left-hand corner an artist sits sketching by a tree. This is not an early example of a painting done in the open air, however, but derived at several steps removed from the works of Pieter Bruegel. The main elements are taken from a print, itself a pastiche of Bruegel’s landscapes, published after 1590. The artist was probably an Italian working in Italy. The picture is painted on poplar, the usual material for Italian panels.
Although at first sight a calm pastoral scene, this picture is full of activity. A river winds through the rocky landscape, seemingly flowing from the background into the foreground. The serpentine shape in the water on the left is apparently a raft of logs being floated down from the forests in the distant mountains. Look closely and you can see three men standing on the logs, seemingly guiding them downstream.
On the further bank three men ride horses towards what may be a lime quarry. A number of figures are working in an area between the river and a double stone arch, some carrying loads, some seemingly using sticks as hammers to break stones. The cylindrical object may be a furnace or kiln; smoke rises from it. In the lower left corner an artist sits sketching by a tree.
The scene is not an early example of plein-air painting, however, but derived at several steps removed from the works of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The main elements are taken from a print of a river landscape with figures of Mercury and Psyche, which was published by Joris Hofnagel around 1590–95, over 20 years after Bruegel’s death. According to the inscription, it was copied from a landscape Bruegel painted in Rome in 1553, although the classical figures seem to have been added, perhaps by Hofnagel. A very similar black chalk drawing in the Musée des Beaux-Arts et d‘Archéologie, Besançon, which lacks the figures of Mercury and Psyche, has ’B.1553‘ inscribed on a rock – evidently for ’Bruegel 1553‘.
Both print and drawing have usually been thought to be copies after a lost pen drawing by Bruegel, but it seems unlikely that the Hofnagel print reproduces a finished Bruegel drawing. It lacks the decorative and narrative interest of Bruegel’s large designs and the perspective is faulty, for example in the raft of logs and the castle on the left. The contours of the river banks are not pleasing, the trees are scattered at random and parts of the landscape make no sense. None of Bruegel’s drawings dated 1552 or 1553 show such failings and his later drawn landscapes are of incomparably higher quality. It’s possible that the Hofnagel print is a pastiche based on several Bruegel drawings, and that the Besançon work is a preliminary drawing for it.
The materials used – a poplar panel and a gypsum ground – mean that the painting was probably made in Italy, where it still was in the nineteenth century; landscapes like this were popular there in the period around 1600. The artist wished to create a landscape in the Netherlandish style and had access to the print of Mercury and Psyche. He was also imitating the works of Netherlandish painter Herri met de Bles, although he did not copy from him in the same way as from the Hofnagel print, and softened his spikier style. Herri met de Bles had perhaps worked in northern Italy and his pictures were collected there – further evidence of where the artist of our painting may have been working.
The artist didn’t really understand the conventions of Netherlandish painting, however, and was not very skilled technically: neither the reflections in the water nor the structure of the log raft really make sense. He was probably an Italian working shortly after the print was produced.
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