Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Return from the Inn: The Burden of Legacy

Paula J. Lapierre

Although his father died when he was somewhere between the ages of one and three, Pieter Brueghel’s work has always been overshadowed by his more famous father’s artistic legacy. Even today the very limited academic literature about his work focuses almost entirely on the ways in which his works are direct copies, or reflect distinct elements, of the elder Bruegel’s work. The works of his younger brother, Jan, who inherited this same legacy, have escaped this treatment to a much greater degree, probably because he moved away from his father’s subjects into studies of still lifes (particularly of flowers) and landscapes. In addition, his collaboration with Pieter Paul Rubens has given him a more individual reputation [1]. Yet Pieter the Younger produced a vast number of paintings which warrant serious study on their own merits. Most are free of the almost overpowering complexity of his father’s religious and moralistic symbolism and, in part because of this, have great appeal to today’s more secular viewers.

Brueghel the Younger’s Return from the Inn (c.1620), in the Permanent Collection of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, is one such example. It is an outdoor winter scene of rural peasant life in early seventeenth century Belgium. It was purchased by Edward Maxwell, a well-known Montreal architect, in Paris in 1896 and donated to the Museum by his family in 1955 in memory of Maxwell’s wife. It is in excellent condition, measures 41.3 by 64.8 cm., and is in oil and tempera on a wooden panel with an oil glaze on the pond in the lower right corner. It is not in its original frame. Since its acquisition by the Museum it has been reproduced in both Canadian Art and Vie des Arts (1956), as well as in the Museum’s handbook (1960)and again in its 2003 Guide. A detail from the painting was also reproduced on one of the Museum’s Christmas cards in 1965, evidence that the Museum saw it as an important work. Much more recently it was discussed in the journal Historisch Nieuwsblad [2].

All the Bruegel dynasty’s works, which covered three generations, should be seen within the context of the flourishing of Flemish art in the seventeenth century. At this time the Netherlands were in the midst of a thriving economic boom, though one that would be disrupted to some extent by the violent attacks on the local movement to gain political independence from Spain, imposed by King Philip II and carried out by the Duke of Alva beginning in 1568 [3].

The booming art market of this period, and the incredible popularity of many of the elder Bruegel’s paintings, led his eldest son to devote a large part of his energies to making copies of his father’s works as well as repeating only very faintly different versions of his own works, including Return from the Inn. Ownership of a “copy” seems not to have devalued a work to anything like the extent such practices would lead to today [4]. Neil De Marchi and Hans Van Miergroet estimate that Brueghel made at least sixty copies of his father’s Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Birdtrap; thirty copies of the Adoration of the Magi in the Snow; and twenty-five copies of the Preaching of John the Baptist —as well as smaller numbers of copies of several other works by Bruegel the Elder. This enterprise involved him in running a busy atelier with numerous apprentices and assistants but, in spite of this productivity, Brueghel the Younger never accumulated substantial personal wealth.

The whole question of “copies” arises in two forms in the case of Brueghel’s painting Return from the Inn. There are references to three other “versions” and a different title ( Drunkard Expelled from the Inn ) in the Montreal Museum’s archival files [5]. These versions are identified as being in collections in Johannesburg, Amsterdam and London. However, Georges Marlier, the leading authority on Brueghel the Younger, lists eleven different versions [6]. Even more interesting is that, in one of these versions, the central figure, the presumably drunk young man, has disappeared. This single but central omission obviously changes the moral tone of the picture, raising questions as to the moral intent of the artist.

The painting’s alternate title, Drunkard Expelled from the Inn, gives the most obvious explanation. The worn looking woman, presumably the man’s wife, is leading him away from the brawl taking place both inside and outside the tavern located on the right of the picture plane. She is portrayed pointing pathetically towards the young child, who is viewed only from the back, presumably chastising the man for neglecting his family and for his drunken and bellicose behaviour. If the husband is removed, the painting becomes simply a rural scene of peasant life.

The MMFA’s description of the painting also notes its sexual symbolism: the disheveled clothing and conspicuous sword of the husband; the bagpipes carried by the child (something included in a whole series of Brueghel the Younger’s paintings and commonly seen as a sexual symbol); and the suggestive position of the tree with a slit pierced by another log [7].

Other commentators have given the painting more concrete moral and symbolic interpretations. An undated sheet of handwritten notes in the museum’s archives, presumably dating from when the museum acquired the painting, with an ineligible signature but a firm directive “Do Not Type” at the top, identifies the painting as The Sacrifice of Isaac, going on to describe the painting as “evidently a satirical twist to the familiar type of peasant subject” [8]. The same file contains copies of correspondence between Evan Turner, the Director of the museum, and Heinrich Shwarz, of the Davison Art Center at Wesleyan University, in February 1962. Shwarz points out the missing man in an Amsterdam version of the same scene but also states: “If it contains some disguised symbolism it would be a representation of Gula & Ira.” In another letter Shwarz reiterates this view: “I think the Gula symbolism is clearly expressed through the bag-pipe as a symbol of Gula…” [9].

A more straightforward and contemporary interpretation of the moral message of the picture could be that it does indeed display the decadent behaviour of the Flemish peasantry, an interpretation often given to the many peasant scenes which appear in the works of Bruegel the Elder. Not only the central male figure, but also the other individuals shown using farm implements as weapons in a fight outside the tavern and the other characters arguing inside the tavern could represent immoral behaviour in this strictly Catholic country. The whole scene in the right side of the painting shows many signs of communal neglect. The pond has a partly submerged barrel frozen in the ice. The small Christian shrine with its crucified figure of Christ has been allowed to fall into disrepair. The cross is crooked and the right side of the shrine itself is coming detached. There are the remains of an untended and smoldering bonfire near the inn and beyond it, a wagon with some crop loaded upon it. It too seems not to be well kept as chickens are pecking at spilled grain beneath its wheels.

The scene in the other half of the painting is much more orderly. The farm buildings on the left at the rear are clean and well-kept, as is the large church in the background. In front of it on the right is what may be yet another tavern. Aside from the two central figures, their child, and the brawlers, there are only two other peasants shown—one carrying a heavy load of twigs on his back and another in the distant background. The two halves of the painting seem to show decadence and decline on the right and wholesome living and piety on the left.

The formal properties of the painting are what really engage the viewer’s attention. The viewer’s eye is immediately drawn to the center of the picture by the dominant figure of the husband, highlighted not only by his size but also by his bright red jacket, which contrasts the much more subdued palette used in the rest of the painting. The actions of the more prominent figures give the painting a series of clear lines—to the right these lines are sharp and even violent. The lines of the woman’s arm, the man’s almost drawn sword, the violent gestures and sharp farm implements the men are fighting with outside the tavern, and the horizontal lines of the dead trees evoke a sense of unease and urgency within the painting.

The much more tranquil background, with its peaceful church, cozy snow-covered buildings, and clear blue sky give a peaceful atmosphere to this part of the painting. The lines here are rounded and reassuring, the colours bright and cheerful. As noted above, the man’s red jacket is the most dominant colour. The other peasants wear muted, dark colours, and the child’s clothing is almost indecipherable. The viewer’s eye is led immediately to the red jacket of the man and then on to the details of the violent conflict surrounding the inn. Only later does the viewer’s eye move on to the more tranquil background of the sky, farm buildings, and church—typical of a peaceful rural village. The blue sky, light ochre buildings and the terracotta-coloured church, all covered with crisp white snow, give the painting its arresting quality; in part it is full of motion, tension and urgency, yet at the same time it presents a peaceful winter country scene.

Whatever Brueghel’s moral message, Return from the Inn, like many of his other scenes of nature and rural life, is a very engaging picture. His works may lack the complex iconography and power of his father’s more famous works—still hotly debated in contemporary criticism—but they provide the viewer with a memorable artistic experience—the true aim of any accomplished artist [10].

1. Hans Vlieghe, Flemish Art and Architecture, 1586-1700 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), pp. 207-08; Erik Larsen, Flemish Painting: Seventeenth Century (New York: McGraw Hill, 1967), pp. 5-9.
2. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (hereafter MMFA), Archives, File 1122-1955. Although 5,000 Christmas cards were printed none seem to have survived. See also MMFA, Guide (Montreal, 2003), p. 109.
3. Stanley Ferber, “Peter Bruegel and the Duke of Alba,” Renaissance News 19 (1966), pp. 205-19; Kurt Foster, Mannerist Painting (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966): 26-30; Keith Roberts, Bruegel (London: Phaidon Press, 1982), pp. 20-1; Vlieghe, Flemish Art: 1-2; Marilyn Stokstad, Art History, 2nd rev. ed. (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson/Prentice Hall), p. 711.
4. Neil De Marchi and Hans J. Van Miergroet, “Art, Value and Market Practices in the Netherlands in the Seventeenth Century,” Art Bulletin 76 (1994), pp. 454-5, and n25; Jacqueline Folie, “Pierre Brueghel le jeune,” in Bruegel: Une Dynastie de peintres (Bruxelles, 1980), pp. 148-9 confirms some of these numbers and comments on the subtle differences between many of the different versions.
5. MMFA, Archives, file 1122-1955, ” information for archive card.”
6. Georges Marlier, Pierre Brueghel le jeune (Bruxelles: Éditions Robert Finck, 1969), pp. 418-20.
7. MMFA, Guide, p. 109. For other Brueghel works including bagpipes see Mary Rasmussen, “An Iconography of the Bagpipe—16th/17th Century,” www. unh.edu/music/Icon/ibpks.htm.
8. MMFA, Archives, file 1122-1955.
9. Gula is a symbol of gluttony, which would include drunkenness. Ira is a symbol of evil.
10. See Margaret Sullivan, “Bruegel’s Proverbs: Art and Audience in the Northern Renaissance,” Art Bulletin 73 (1991), pp. 431-56 and Perez Zagorin, “Looking for Pieter Bruegel,” Journal of the History of Ideas 64 (2003), pp. 73-96 for examples of the passion with which these debates continue.