Pieter Brueghel the Younger

Brussels 1564 - 1637/8 Antwerp

The Peasant Lawyer, or The Payment of Tithes

Signed and dated, lower left: P BRUEGHEL 1615
Oil on panel, 30⅝ x 49⅛ ins. (78 x 125 cm)

Sold to a private collector

Ryhiner-Stehlin family, Basle, Switzerland, since before 1920 and
Thence by descent until 2004
With Johnny Van Haeften Limited, London, 2004
Private collection, England, 2004-2022


Georges Marlier, Pierre Brueghel le Jeune, 1969, p. 439, No. 33. 
Klaus Ertz, Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere (1564-1637/38): Die Gemälde mit kritischem oevrekatalog, Lingen, 1988/2000, vol. I, p. 515, Cat. No. F517.
C. Currie & D. Allert, The Brueg[H]el Phenomenon: Paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Pieter Brueghel the Younger with a special focus on technique and copying practices, Brussels, 2012, vol. 2, p. 709, under note 10. 


The scene is located in a cramped, untidy office.  Bundles of documents tied up with string are piled up on every available surface, or hang in bags from hooks driven into walls and rafters.  More bundles and document bags, as well as loose papers and a quill pen, are strewn about the floor.  The village lawyer, wearing a small, black skullcap, is seated at a desk absorbed in reading a document.  Standing before him is a group of peasants.  Mute and diffident, they wait their turn, each of them clutching a sample of their produce – a bunch of grapes, a plucked fowl, a basket of eggs – intended as payment in kind for services rendered.  A scribe works at a table to one side. 

This painting of The Peasant Lawyer by Pieter Brueghel the Younger is one of the best examples of a popular composition that satirises the legal profession.  Ertz recognised twenty-five autograph versions, nineteen of which are signed and dated between 1615 and 1630[i].  The present painting, which signed with the early form of the artist’s signature (BRUEGHEL which changed to BREUGHEL during the course of 1616) and dated 1615 is one of only two versions from that year.  The composition is known in two different formats: the smaller measuring approximately 55 x 87 cm, and the larger approximately 76 x 123 cm.  Regardless of size, the paintings in the series comprise two distinct groups: the most noticeable differences between them are in the wall-covering at the back of the room and in the costume of the man standing on the far left: in the first group, of which the present painting is an example, the back wall is covered with plaited rushes and the man in question wears a jacket with grey or cream-coloured sleeves, while in the other, the wall is covered in a dark green cloth and the man wears a jacket with red sleeves.  Judging from the dated examples, the former variant occurs only from 1615-1617, while the other occurs from 1618-1626.  Thus it seems that for some unexplained reason Pieter Brueghel the Younger decided to modify some aspects of his composition around 1617-1618. 

The present painting is one of the examples in the large format.  As well as being one of the two earliest versions, both from 1615, it has come down to us in an unusually good state of preservation.  Infra-red reflectography shows that the underdrawing executed on the surface of the imprimatura – a preparatory layer brushed over the surface of the panel – was carried out quite freely, but as with the other larger compositions by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, the main outlines of the design were likely transferred to the panel by means of a traced cartoon, according to the usual practice of the Brueghel workshop.  It is interesting to note, however, that in this case the artist has deviated from the drawn outlines in several area, most noticeably in the position of some of the peasants’ feet.  Close inspection also reveals a detail unique to this version: unlike all the other versions in which the lawyer wears a larger scholar’s cap, here it has been reduced to a simple skullcap, the original larger hat being just visible as a pentiment above the lawyer’s head. 

Unusually for Pieter Brueghel the Younger, the Peasant Lawyer does not appear to be based on a work by his father Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-30-1569), nor does it resemble any of the independent compositions he developed towards the end of his career.  Despite much speculation by scholars the source of the image has not been found. In 1993, Jacqueline Folie suggested that Brueghel may have based his work on a lost prototype of French origin, a theory predicated on the fact that the calendar hanging on the wall of the lawyer’s office is written in French and style of the peasants’ short beards and close-cropped hair, as well as their clothing, was not typical of the Southern Netherlands at that time[ii].  However, Folie also conceded that the presence of a calendar in French was not in itself proof, since French was the language of the legal profession in seventeenth-century Flanders.  Her hypothesis was nevertheless supported by Ingeborg Krueger[iii], whilst Klaus Ertz in his 2000 catalogue raisonné of Brueghel’s work opined that the original might be a lost painting by the French artist Nicolas Baullery (1560-1630)[iv]

Although this subject has been variously called The Payment of the Tithes (Le Paiement de la Dîme), or The Tax Collector’s Office, the scene actually represents the office of a country lawyer[v].  Evidence that this was the case is provided by several engravings of this image which appeared in political pamphlets of the day together with an explanatory text.  The first was published in Nuremberg in 1618[vi], only three years after Brueghel’s earliest dated painting, with a text that explicitly lampoons the legal profession[vii].  The style of the print suggests that the engraver took as his model a painting rather than a drawing, but it is not clear whether it is based on one of Brueghel’s paintings, or another prototype.  As one would expect, it is printed in the reverse direction to the painting, but otherwise follows closely the earlier variant of Brueghel’s composition.  That this was the usual interpretation in Brueghel’s day is confirmed by the titles of pictures in certain inventories of Antwerp art collections.  For example, the 1627 inventory of Antoinette de Wiael’s collection refers to “a French lawyer [een franschen procureur], on panel by the younger Pieter Brueghel”, while that of Anna Schoot in 1663 recorded “a lawyer by the ‘Hell’ Brueghel’”[viii].

Brueghel was not, however, the only artist to exploit this ironic image.  A number of versions were produced outside the Brueghel workshop, as well as new interpretations of the theme.  In a painting of 1628 in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam[ix], the Rotterdam genre painter Pieter de Bloot (1601-1658) depicted a lawyers’ office, with a queue of people waiting patiently to seek advice.  We are left in no doubt as to the picture’s message, as it is contained in the motto on the right: “Die wil rechten om een koe die brengter noch een toe” (“If you go to a lawyer to get back your cow, you will have to bring another to pay him”), roughly the equivalent of the modern proverb, “to go to law for a sheep and lose a cow”.  Jan van Kessel the Elder (1626-1679) likewise seized the opportunity to take a swipe at the legal profession in his Monkeys playing the Peasant Lawyer of 1649[x].  In this painting, all the people have been substituted for monkeys dressed in human clothing. 


Surprisingly few details survive regarding the life of Pieter Breughel the Younger. Even his date of birth, probably in Brussels, 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 prematurely in 1569 and was an adolescent when his mother, Maria Coecke, daughter of the artist and publisher Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502-1550) passed away nine years later.  He may have received his first training from his maternal grandmother, Mayken Verhulst, who was a painter and had been married to Pieter Coecke van Aelst.  He lived in Brussels until 1583, when he moved to Antwerp, where he may have become an apprentice to the landscapist Gillis van Coninxloo (1544-1607), as Karel van Mander claimed[xi].  In 1584-85, Pieter the Younger registered as a vrymeestersson (‘free master’s son’) in the Antwerp painters’ Guild.  In 1588, he married Elizabeth Goddelet, who bore him seven children, all of whom were baptised in the Sint-Andrieskerk in Antwerp between 1589 and 1597.  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).  His eldest son, Pieter III (1589-1639), who also became a painter, probably trained with his father before registering in the Guild of St. Luke in 1608.  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]  Klaus Ertz, Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere (1564-1637/38), Lingen, 2000, page refs? 

[ii] J. Folie, Pieter Brueghel de Jonge, exh. cat., Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht, 1993, no. 7.

[iii] See: I. Krueger, ‘”… nimbt Gelt, Butter, Hüner, Endten …”. Zu Darstellungen des Bauernadvocaten von Pieter Brueghel d. J. und anderen’, Das Rheinische Landesmuseum Bonn, Berichte aus der Arbeit des Museums 3, 1995, pp. 78-84. 

[iv] K. Ertz, op. cit, vol. I, p. 496 and n. 862. 

[v] J. Folie, ibid., p. 95.

[vi] Pamphlet of 1618, engraving, inscribed ‘ FAD. (?) Schal’, Nuremberg, Germany. 

[vii] I. Krueger, op. cit, pp. 78-84. 

[viii]  Quoted in Pieter van den Brink, et. al., Brueghel Enterprises, exh. cat., Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht and Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, 2001-2002, p. 173, note. 4.

[ix] Pieter de Bloot, Lawyer’s Office, 1628, panel, 57 x 83 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, inv. no. A660.

[x]  Jan van Kessel the Elder, Monkeys playing the Peasant Lawyer, 1649, copper, 34.9 x 43.2 cm,

Sotheby’s, New York, 16 May 1996, lot 83.

[xi]  See: C. Currie & D. Allart, op. cit, 2012, vol. I, p. 48, for the latest research on Pieter’s apprenticeship with van Coninxloo.