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Monday, March 7, 2011

Jan Brueghel

Anyone who has ever followed in the footsteps of a famous father knows it can be a curse as well as a blessing. While there is instant name recognition, there is also an elevated standard of quality which the son or daughter must live up to. Most people are familiar with the work of Northern Renaissance artist, Pieter Brueghel, famous for his landscapes and peasant genre subjects. His son, Jan Brueghel, was born in 1568 just before his father died. His brother, Pieter Brueghel (the younger) was also a successful artist. Growing up without the influence of his painter-father, Jan was taught the gentle art of watercolor by his maternal grandmother. Perhaps because of this, the style and substance of his painting is nothing like that of either his father or brother. And judging by one of his most famous works, Allegory of Sight, it would appear, at least insofar as technique and audacity were concerned, he was twice the painter either of them were.

Allegory of Sight (detail), 1617,
Jan Brueghel
Allegory of Sight is one of a series of five paintings, each devoted to one of the senses. And since painting has an obvious link to sight, it is by far the best. The paintings were commissioned by the Antwerp city fathers as a gift for the reigning monarchs of Spain as they paid a call on the Netherlands, which they ruled at the time. In each of the paintings a nude Venus is surrounded by objects connected to the particular sense portrayed. Curiously, in this particular painting, Venus, the goddess of love, displays for her young son, Cupid, a painting of Jesus restoring sight to a blind man--talk about a mixture of the sacred and profane!

Allegory of Sight, 1618, Jan Brueghel, Peter Paul Rubens
(Not the same as the 1617 painting above)
 The huge, 12 by 14 foot painting is basically an enormous still-life set in a museum cluttered with all manner of sculpture, scientific instruments, paintings, exotic animals, maps, globes, decorated cabinets, tapestries, and other miscellaneous collectibles having a Dutch connection. Off to the right is a painting of a Madonna and Child by Rubens, done by Rubens, making this work a collaborative effort by the two painters. I counted nearly two dozen other highly detailed paintings within this painting, not counting a background hallway hung floor to ceiling with other ill-defined paintings interspersed with larger-than-life sculptures. On the floor, front and center, is the comical rendition of a small ape with a pair of spectacles making an amusing allegorical comment regarding the fact that all painting, even one a grand as this, is, to one extent of another, merely copying.

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