Pieter Brueghel the Younger

Brussels 1564 - 1637/8 Antwerp

Pissing at the Moon

Oil on panel, oval, 6½ x 7¾ ins (17 x 19.7cm)
The verso of the panel bears the mark of the panel maker Guilliam Gabron.

VP5000



Sold to a private collector in Switzerland
Provenance

With Kunsthandel de Boer, Amsterdam, 1934
Max J. Friedländer, Berlin and Amsterdam
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, London, 27 October 1993, lot 88
with Robert Noortman, Maastricht, 1994, from whom acquired by a
Private Collector in the Netherlands
Anonymous sale, Christie’s, London, 6 July 2010, lot 13
With Johnny Van Haeften Limited, London, 2010
Private collection, United Kingdom, 2013-2022


Literature

G. Marlier, Pierre Brueghel Le Jeune, Brussels, 1969, p. 157, no. 19b
Klaus Ertz, Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere (1564-1637/38): Die Gemälde mit kritischem oevrekatalog, Lingen, 1988/2000, Vol. I, pp. 131-2, fig. 99, p. 205, no. E95


Exhibited

Amsterdam, Kunsthandel P. de Boer, Tentoonstelling van de jongere Breughels, 1934, no. 26
Vienna, Palais Pallavacini, Die jüngeren Brueghel und ihr Kreis, 1935
Ghent, Musée des Beaux-Arts, 1935
Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Cinq Siècles d'Art, 1935
London, Johnny Van Haeften Limited, Dutch and Flemish Old Master Paintings: Eighteen, 2001, no.  8. 


Essay

A significant portion of Pieter Breughel the Younger’s oeuvre is devoted to paintings of proverbs and sayings.  In addition to his large-scale, ambitious compositions containing many proverbs, he also produced a series of some forty or so small circular panels depicting individual proverbs.  These usually exist in multiple versions and in varying degrees of quality and were probably produced in pairs or sets, according to demand.  In this little roundel, Breughel depicts a man, seen from behind, standing on a cliff edge, pissing into the sea below: clearly visible on the surface of the water is the silvery reflection of a crescent moon.  The image illustrates quite literally and in a witty fashion the popular Flemish saying, “Wat ick verloghe, en geraecke daer niet aen ick pisse altyt tegen de maen” (“Whatever I try to do, I never succeed, I am always pissing at the moon”), in other words the activity is futile.  The modern equivalent, “to piss in the wind”, expresses more or less the same meaning - that is to say, doing something that is a complete waste of time and effort. 

Pieter Breughel the Younger’s paintings of proverbs perpetuate a tradition begun by his father Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-30-1569).  In 1559, Bruegel painted his famous Netherlandish Proverbs[i], which brought together more than one hundred proverbs on the common theme of the sins and follies of mankind.  Bruegel’s painting is testament to the popularity of proverbs in the culture of his day.  Although proverbs and sayings had been collected in compendia since ancient times, interest in them reached a new peak in the sixteenth century, stimulated by the writings of the Dutch humanist, Erasmus of Rotterdam.  The first edition of his Adages was published in 1500 and contained some eight hundred proverbs drawn from classical antiquity and the Bible.  It instantly became a best-seller, reaching a wide readership and running into many editions.  There were also numerous visual representations of proverbs in the form of woodcuts and engravings.  A print published by Frans Hogenberg in 1558, featuring around one hundred proverbs, was most probably the inspiration for Pieter the Elder’s painting.

Pissing at the Moon” is one of the rarest and most iconic of Pieter the Younger’s proverbial subjects.  Unusually, only one other version is known, in the Schönborn Collection in Pommersfelden[ii], which forms part of a set of nine circular depictions of proverbs.  Both works probably derive from a lost prototype by Pieter the Elder, a copy of which is in the Museum Mayer van den Bergh in Antwerp[iii].  The motif of the pissing man also appears in  Pieter the Elder’s large scale Netherlandish Proverbs, but there it is conceived in quite a different manner: a man is seen standing at the open, upstairs window of the Crescent Moon inn, pissing on the pub sign below. 

The verso of this little panel bears the mark of Guilliam Gabron (the letters GG interlinked with a floral motif), a panelmaker active in Antwerp from 1609 to after 1662[iv].  The mark was made using Gabron’s early punch, which was in use between 1614 and 1626.  However, the Antwerp city brand, which often accompanies a maker’s mark, is not in evidence.  Under strict new rules introduced by the Antwerp guild in 1617, panels which had been approved for sale by the dean, were branded on the back with the city’s coat of arms (two severed hands and the Antwerp citadel)[v].  The absence of the brand here may indicate that the panel was made before 1617, or perhaps, more likely it did not require a stamp because it did not conform to one of the dozen standard sizes to which the new regulations applied. 

BIOGRAPHY

Surprisingly few details survive regarding the life of Pieter Breughel the Younger. Even his date of birth in Antwerp is not known although two documents which state that he was thirty-six on 22 May 1601 and seventy-two on 10 October 1636 suggest he was born in 1564 or 1565.  He was the son of the celebrated peasant and landscape painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and the older brother of Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625).  He was, therefore, only about five years old when his father died in 1569 and was an adolescent when his mother passed away.  He may have received his first training from his maternal grandmother, Mayken Verhulst, who was a painter and had been married to the painter Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502-1550).  Van Mander suggested that he also received training from Gillis van Coninxloo (1544-1607), a claim that is not generally accepted.  Pieter the Younger became a master in the Antwerp painters’ Guild in 1584-85.  Nine pupils are listed as having been trained in his workshop between 1588 and 1626, among them Frans Snyders (1579-1657) and Gonzales Coques (1614/28-1684).  In 1588, he married Elizabeth Goddelet and their eldest son, Pieter III (1589-1639), also became a painter.  Although he enjoyed a long and productive career that lasted more than half a century and exported his works widely through the firm of Forchoudt, he seems never to have owned a house and, in 1597, was behind with his rent.  He died in Antwerp in 1637 or 1638. 


[i]  Pieter Bruegel I, The Flemish Proverbs, panel 117 x 163.5 cm, Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin,   Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Gemäldegalerie.
[ii]  Klaus Ertz, Pieter Breughel der Jüngere, Lingen, 2000,p. 205, cat. no. E96. 
[iii]  After Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “Pissing at the Moon”, Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp.
[iv]  See: Tiarna Doherty, Mark Leonard and Jørgen Wadum in “Brueghel and Rubens at Work: Technique
        and the Practice of Collaboration” in the exh. cat. Rubens & Brueghel: A working Friendship,
        The J.  Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles & Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague, 2006-2007,
        p. 234-235.
[v] Ibid., p. 219.