This exceptionally large treatment of the theme of the village kermesse, a subject which enjoyed widespread popularity in the art of Early Modern Northern Europe, particularly in the Dutch and Flemish tradition, has long been associated with the world of Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Sold as ‘School of Pieter Brueghel II’ in 1974, the work was published Dr. Klaus Ertz as ‘very close to the early pictures of Pieter II’ (‘Sehr nahe bei den frühen Pieter II-Bildern’): ‘the hand is that of another painter, unknown to us, who must have painted this wonderful composition towards the end of the sixteenth century, in the immediate proximity of Pieter II’s early compositions. We cannot exclude that Pieter II was himself influenced by this enormous painting’ (loc. cit., p. 881).
More recently, Dr. Ertz has identified this as the work of the earlier artist Marten van Cleve, a contemporary of Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s father, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. This makes it a fascinating rediscovery, an exciting addition to the oeuvre of this important sixteenth-century artist, a key ‘missing link’ in the development of Flemish painting of the Northern Renaissance. Even more mysterious than the enigmatic Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Marten van Cleve has long been recognised as one of the leading Flemish artists of his generation, but biographical details are difficult to establish, and no definitive monograph has ever been published – although one is currently in preparation by Dr. Ertz, in which the present work will appear as catalogue no. 49. The history of the gradual emergence of this attribution over recent decades illustrates the importance that Marten van Cleve had for the development of Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s style, alongside the more natural and more widely recognised precedent of his father, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The present work has numerous details, particularly many of the faces, which bear a striking stylistic affinity to the hand of Pieter the Younger, and it is clear that such paintings would have had a strong effect on the earliest efforts of that artist, as has already been surmised by Ertz in his earlier discussion. Pieter the Younger was about three years old when Marten van Cleve died, but he would have grown up with an awareness of his art, as that of one of the foremost painters of the previous generation.
The subject matter is sophisticated and multilayered, like so much of sixteenth-century European art, thought, scholarship and literature, and can be read on at least two levels of interpretation. On the surface, it is a depiction of Late Medieval or Early Modern country life, with peasants and villagers celebrating the Feast Day of Saint George. In the early Dutch tradition, such celebrations were known by the term kermesse, derived from the words for ‘church mass’; each village would throw a particularly elaborate kermesse feast day of the patron saint of the village church, with dwellers of neighbouring villages coming over to join in the fun. Saint George appears on the furling banner at left, shown with his attributes as the patron saint of archers, while in the right background a target-shooting archery contest is underway. On the other hand, a more erudite, allegorical meaning is encoded into the composition. The largest and most prominent figure in the work is the man in red hose in the right foreground, who is heading away from the festivities, waving goodbye to his friends at the tavern. His pose and flushed features suggest he too has been drinking, and he seems to be led away by his wife – a motif which would also become popular with the Brueghels. His wife carries a sheathed sword, a masculine attribute which suggests that she is in control or has had to take charge of the family responsibilities as a result of his behaviour; the fact that it is sheathed also alludes to restrained anger. The figure in the precise centre of the foreground, however, is a child on a hobby-horse, learning (by imitation) to ride, like the adults at the extreme right. This motif makes a conventional allusion to the process of education, of learning to become an adult, and the child has the choice of following two examples – that of the lax drinkers at the tavern, or of the sober and virtuous characters heading home from the festivities to carry on with their work. Although he is looking around at all of the grown-ups, it seems he has only a limited choice in the matter, led back into the composition by a family whose faces we do not see – a stand-in for the viewer entering the composition visually. The father wears a printed pennant in his hat: an early pictorial record of the hand-coloured, ephemeral and affordable woodblock prints which were produced for mass consumption at such social occasions. In the meantime, another child, the son of the tipsy man and the woman with the sword, follows his parents meekly out of the composition; his face stares wide-eyed at the other players in this scene.