Frans Huys, after Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Skating before the Saint George’s Gate, Antwerp

There are but few Flemish old master painters – especially sixteenth-century ones – whose name and oeuvre are known across the globe. Pieter Bruegel certainly is one of them. It is thus all the more of a surprise that relatively little details about his life are known with certainty: he is scarcely recorded in the archival sources. Bruegel was born sometime between 1525 and 1530. Where remains the subject of debate: over the years, some art historians have suggested the (North Netherlandish) Brabant village of Breugel, whereas others suspected he came from the Southern Netherlands, possibly Brogel or Bree. There is also a case to be made for Bruegel to have been born in Antwerp. It is generally assumed that he was trained there in the 1540’s, in the workshop of Pieter Coucke van Aelst. He became a master of the Antwerp guild of St Luke in 1551.

In 1552 Bruegel left for Italy, where he would remain until 1554. He spent some time in Rome and travelled as far south as Reggio di Calabria. On his return, he probably visited Venice, before coming back to Antwerp. There he worked primarily as a draughtsman and print designer at In de Vier Winden, Hieronymus Cock’s internationally renowned publishing house.  It is only later that Bruegel concentrated on painting: his first known painted work is dated 1557. He would devote himself mostly to painting from 1562 onwards, after his marriage to Mayken Coucke and the couple’s subsequent move to Brussels. Bruegel died in 1569, leaving behind a small oeuvre of some 45 paintings and 65 drawings, as well as two sons, Jan Brueghel and Pieter Brueghel the Younger, both of whom would become well-known painters themselves. The rare works of Bruegel were already much in demand in the sixteenth century; today, all but a few of his works are in institutional collections.

It were his prints, however, that allowed for Bruegel’s work to be widely dispersed, known and admired. The present work is the second state of a print first published by Hieronymus Cock in 1558 or 1559 after a drawing by Pieter Bruegel (now in a private collection) depicting a multitude of people skating on the frozen moat between St George’s Gate and the Cronenborg Gate in Antwerp. The topography of the scene is quite accurate, albeit depicted as a mirror image of the actual situation. (This has been interpreted by some as adding an additional layer of meaning to the work – the world turned upside-down – which seems however a bit far-fetched, as this was very common in engravings.)  The scene shows off Bruegel’s stunning powers of observation: a diverse range of people of all ages is shown skating, falling over, playing, gossiping. Some are evidently experienced skaters, whereas others have more difficulty. One man who has fallen over is being helped up in the foreground; in the back, an unlucky skater is being pulled out of the icy water. In the front stands a man facing the viewer directly, his arms outstretched, standing a bit wobbly on the ice, as if introducing us to the scene behind him. To the right and on the bridge stand passers-by and onlookers, a few of whom are visibly delighted by the troubles of some of the skaters below.

In many of Bruegel’s paintings and drawings, he depicts farmers in an array of (sometimes embarrassing) situations, often with moralising undertones for his urban clientele. Here, however, it is the townsmen that are shown not always to behave elegantly or dignified, which has led researchers to believe that this scene was meant not merely to show merry-making on the ice but also to make a moralising point – not without a hint of satire – to the contemporary viewer. In Cock’s edition of the print of 1558/9 however, there are no further clues as to what the print – and its maker – could have referred to. In the second state of the print, published by Ioannes Galle over 75 years after the first state, several of the inscriptions serve to decode the supposed original meaning of the print. Ioannes was the grandson of Philips Galle, who knew both Bruegel and Cock intimately. It is therefore not unreasonable to suppose that he knew the context in which the first state was printed, as well as its meaning. Galle’s edition is titled De slibberachtigheyt van ‘s menschen leven – the slipperiness of man’s life – which evidently does not only refer to ice-skating. In addition to that, St George’s gate has been marked with the inscription Porta S. Georgii Antverpiae – possibly in view of an international audience that would not have been familiar with the local topography – and the date 1553. That same date is also mentioned in another inscription, lower left: P. Breugel delineavit et pinxit ad vivum 1553.

This is rather curious, for two reasons: firstly because Bruegel was not in Antwerp at the time, but in Italy; secondly, because the preparatory drawing for the print is dated 1558 or 1559 (the last digit of the date is somewhat ambiguous). To what, then, refers the date 1553? Archival research has learnt that in 1553 there was a lot of commotion in Antwerp because of an official inquest into the corruption that had occurred during the construction of the new city walls. Hieronymus Cock’s brother Cornelis Wellens was also embroiled in the scandal that surrounded former mayor Michiel van der Heyden, who had accepted bribes in exchange for awarding commissions for construction works; in his deposition on June 4, 1553, Cornelis Wellens declared having undertaken digging works for the handsome sum of ten to twelve thousand guilders and that he was not aware of van der Heyden’s practices – which was hard to believe. The site of the aforementioned digging works was the area between St George’s gate and the Cronenborg gate – the exact spot that is shown in the engraving!

The rhyme at the bottom of the print refers to the frailty of existence and the slipperiness of human life, some falling down and others holding their own, some acting foolishly and others wisely. Seen in this light, the print can clearly be interpreted as a jibe by Hieronymus Cock and Bruegel at a family member and prominent citizen who had displayed ‘slippery’ moral and financial judgement.

SOLD TO A PRIVATE COLLECTOR.

Artist: Frans Huys (Antwerp 1522 - 1562) after Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Antwerp? ca. 1525 - 1569 Brussels)
Medium: engraving
Dimensions: 231 x 294 mm (trimmed to the platemark)
Edition: second state, seventeenth-century impression