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Missing Breugel

Over the past week I read Michael Frayn’s book ‘Headlong.’ It’s a fictional account about the discovery of a missing Bruegel painting that was one of six of his paintings about the ‘seasons.’ The plot of the book I found to be farcical, but the historical content was very informative both about the narrative content of the pictures, and the political environment in which they were produced. You will have seen ‘Hunters in the Snow’ ( January/February) as it is often reproduce for jigsaws or for cards at Christmas.

Three of these paintings are in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna: Early Spring, Autumn and Winter. Early Summer is at Lobkowicz Palace in Prague, and Late Summer is now at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

I’ve added the wonderful painting’Harvesters’ from the series (July / August) which is in the Met.

‘It is generally agreed that the missing picture represented the months of March/April. It may have resembled, at least in subject, Bruegel's drawing of "Spring" (Albertina, Vienna), which is inscribed by the artist "De Lenten Meert April Meij."

I’ve attached the drawing and some information about it.

‘Three different zones of garden and field work are shown on top of each other in Spring; sheep shearing and springtime merrymaking are joined together in a single section of the landscape. As opposed to the richly detailed character of his early allegories, Brueghel’s compositions from about 1565 reveal a new form of monumentality, combined with a strict organization of space. The poses and three-dimensional character of the large figures of men working in the foreground have been attributed to Italian influences. These figures represent a pronounced contrast to the others, who become drastically smaller in a diagonal configuration into the depth. At the same time, Brueghel’s unmatched mastery in working with pen is demonstrated here. He attained a seemingly infinite range of tones and nuances in the exciting alternation between long fine lines and tiny strokes or dots. ‘(Marian Bisanz-Prakken, 2013)

If you look at how the figures toiling in the foreground have been drawn and look at the attached Van Gogh drawing of a similar subject (300 + years later) I think there is a connection!

As you know I’m in Vienna looking at the Bruegel pen and ink drawing that could be for our project to produce the ‘missing’ Bruegel from his ‘Seasons’ series.

Three Bruegel paintings from the ‘Seasons’ series are exhibited at the Kunsthistoriche Museum in Vienna. They are ‘ Hunters in the Snow,’ ‘The Return of the Herd,’ and ‘Gloomy Day.’ I looked at all three paintings very closely when I was there last week. Here follows some of my notes about them: they were all painted in 1565; they are all the same size; the underdrawing or imprimatura painting is visible in all of them; in many parts of each painting the paint seems to have been mixed and applied with a transparent medium such as linseed oil; the lead white ground is visible in places; the paint has been manipulated to mirror water, clouds, soil, the bark of a tree; as the paint has been applied thinly the colours retain luminosity. It’s important to understand and locate the imprimatura layer in Bruegel paintings and I’ve added the Wikipedia definition of this layer, ’ in painting, imprimatura is an initial stain of color painted on a ground. It provides a painter with a transparent, toned ground, which will allow light falling onto the painting to reflect through the paint layers. The term itself stems from the Italian and literally means "first paint layer". Its use as an underpainting layer can be dated back to the guilds and workshops during the Middle Ages; however, it came into standard use by painters during the Renaissance, particularly in Italy. The imprimatura not only provides an overall tonal optical unity in a painting but is also useful in the initial stages of the work, since it helps the painter establish value relations from dark to light. It is most useful in the classical approach of indirect painting, where the drawing and underpainting are established ahead of time and allowed to dry. The successive layers of color are then applied in transparent glaze or semi-transparent layers. Care is taken not to cover the imprimatura completely allowing it to show through the final paint layers; this is effective in particular in the middle to dark shadow areas of the work. An imprimatura is usually made with an earth pigment such as raw sienna, and is often diluted with turpentine. In my own experience using just turpentine as a glazing media - is that it tends to ‘crackle’ after time - hence my view that there is another oil based transparent media involved in Bruegel’s painting.

I’ve added the painting ‘The Return of the Herd,’ and a photo of a lower right section that contains some of the elements that I have referred to earlier. All of this is relevant and should informs our approach when we eventually start our version of the missing Bruegel!

We have good news about our Breugel project! As you might remember I was initially trying to find an old oak tabletop for the panel for the missing ‘Spring’ painting from his six paintings about the seasons. However this has proved impossible! So after many searches I have been able to source some new European oak from which we can construct the panel. It should be ready to collect early next week. Tony from the Arts centre is keen to be involved and he will join the six separate planks together to form a painting surface which will be approximately 1.2 m x 1.6 m.

The panel has been constructed and it’s now ready to apply our first ground which is a mixture of animal based glue and chalk.


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