Jan Brueghel (1568-1625) was a painter of immense diversity. His work includes biblical, mythological, and classical histories, battle scenes, hellscapes, seascapes, floral garlands and still lifes, portraits and genre scenes, as well as many sorts of landscape: woodland hunts, mountain prospects, country roads and rivers, and villages. While his surviving oeuvre consists of about 350-400 autograph paintings (including collaborative works), hundreds more are, to varying degrees, associated with his hand or his conception. Early in his career Jan worked mostly at a small scale and on a copper support; gradually the size of his pictures increased and he worked more often on panel or even on canvas. Brueghel often collaborated with other master painters, including Peter Paul Rubens, Hans Rottenhammer, Jan van Balen, Sebastiaen Vrancx, and Joos de Momper. He only had two known pupils, Daniel Seghers and his own son Jan the Younger, but an efficient studio staffed by paid professionals permitted copious production.
Jan was baptized in Brussels on August 28, 1568, son of the painter Pieter Bruegel and Maria Coecke van Aelst. He was the third of the couple’s children and the last, since his father died not long after his birth. Jan lived in Brussels for his first fifteen years, and probably learned to paint from relatives there who worked as tapestry designers. He also received some training in watercolor techniques, possibly miniature painting, from his maternal grandmother Maeyken Verhulst of Mechelen. In 1583 he moved to Antwerp to work with Pieter Goetkint, an oil painter and important art dealer. Although Goetkint died that same year, Jan may have continued working for the family business under Antoon Goetkint.
Around 1588-9 Jan left Antwerp and traveled to Cologne, Frankenthal, and finally to Naples, one of Europe’s largest cities and a good source of employment for foreign artists. There he worked for Don Francesco Caracciolo, a distinguished nobleman and priest, founder of the Minor Clerks Regular and today a patron saint of Naples. Jan was doing small-scale decorative work for him.
Jan had moved to Rome by 1592. There he worked for a circle of four young Cardinals: Egidio Colonna (a Neapolitan connection), Federico Borromeo (the official “Cardinal Protector” of the Roman Accademia di San Luca), Benedetto Giustiniani, and Francesco Maria del Monte. Avid collectors, all four men were to varying degrees interested in the natural sciences and in a “naturalistic” aesthetic, patronizing Caravaggio as well as Brueghel. All were principally buyers of history paintings from Jan, but he produced landscapes in these years as well, probably for the nascent open market in Rome.
Cardinal Borromeo was appointed archbishop of Milan, and Jan accompanied him to that city in the autumn of 1595. By August 1596, though, he was back in Antwerp. He may have returned to help his older brother Pieter the Younger, a fellow painter who was having financial difficulties. Both brothers proceeded to draw heavily upon their famous father’s studio estate, Jan briefly but intensively and Pieter for the rest of his career. In 1597 Jan joined the Antwerp painters’ Guild of St. Luke. In 1599 he married Isabella de Jode, the well-off daughter of engraver, publisher, art dealer and cartographer Gerard de Jode; that same year he became only the second painter invited to join the elite Brotherhood of Romanists, a group which gave him access to an elevated circle of potential patrons. Jan became a citizen of Antwerp in 1601, the year in which his son Jan the Younger was born. A daughter followed in the next year. Jan was by now an officer of the Guild of St. Luke, serving alongside Otto van Veen.
After the death of his wife in 1603, Jan traveled to Prague (1604) and upon his return he bought a new house in Antwerp (‘de Meerminne’ or The Mermaid) and remarried, to Katharine van Marienberghe, with whom he would have eight more children. As his family expanded, Jan seems to have shifted his method of production. Increasingly he produced a sort of pattern work which could be reproduced in a dozen or more variants, at different sizes and on different supports; the works of these years exist in far more non-autograph versions than those from the first decade of his career. Jan also now reestablished contact with Cardinal Borromeo in Milan, who became his steady long-distance patron, and he continued to make works for other foreign buyers, including King Sigismund of Poland. At home, he found a “maecenas” in the educated Antwerp humanist Nicolaas Cornelis Cheeus, who bought at least twenty-five of his works. Unlike his foreign and noble patrons, who commissioned Jan’s histories, battles, and hellscapes, Antwerp collectors like Cheeus were most interested in Jan’s landscape paintings.
More elevated patronage in the Netherlands came from the Archducal couple, Albrecht and Isabella. While Brueghel was never given the title of Court Painter that his friend Rubens enjoyed, he did receive professional privileges from them as well as a steady stream of commissions for a wide variety of pictures – landscapes, large and elaborate genre scenes, and portraits. He is also recorded as producing numerous extremely small works for them. In 1623 the Infanta Isabella would be godmother of Jan’s youngest daughter, Clara Eugenia, while Cardinal Borromeo was her godfather. So well known was the royal couple’s enthusiasm for Brueghel’s art that the city of Antwerp gave the Brussels court several costly gifts of pictures by him. In 1618 the city magistrates paid Brueghel to coordinate the finest local artists in the production of two massive and spectacular allegorical pictures depicting the Five Senses in the form of palatial kunstkammers. Each of nearly a dozen masters would execute “his own” pictures in the depicted collections, while Rubens made the allegorical figures and Brueghel expertly knitted the whole together.
As the center of a high-level painting network, Brueghel had collaborated with most of these artists before: they were his steady co-workers and, in some cases, his close friends as well. Joos de Momper and Frans Snyders are both named as friends in his letters to Cardinal Borromeo, but his friendships with Rubens and Van Balen were particularly close. In around 1613 the three of them traveled together to the Dutch Republic; twelve years later, at his death, these two were named co-guardians of Jan’s children, along with the collector Cornelis Schut and Paulus van Halmale, a member of one of Antwerp’s most powerful and ancient patrician families. All of these men, artists and patrons alike, had belonged to the Brotherhood of Romanists. In his later years the volume of Jan’s original output had declined but he had continued to prosper, purchasing more property in Antwerp in 1619. He had trained his son Jan the Younger as a painter, and had sent him to Italy so that he might broaden his horizons, but the father’s death in the cholera epidemic of 1625 cut that journey short. Jan the Younger returned to Antwerp, took over the family workshop, and spent the rest of his own life carrying on the Jan Brueghel brand.