Jonny van Haeften is known for his finds but this latest Bruegel that remained in the same family for 400 years from its purchase to today ranks as one of the best finds. The subject of the work is well-known but the existence of this one has not been public knowledge outside the family. It will be once van Haeften puts the work on his stand at Frieze Masters this week with a £6m price tag:
It shows a relatively obscure Biblical subject, “The Census at Bethlehem”, which is mentioned in the Gospel according to Luke, Chapter Two. But if it’s hardly one of the best known of Bible stories, it’s a subject very well known to connoisseurs and enthusiasts of Flemish painting of the period, because Brueghel’s father, Pieter the Elder, made the first version of the painting in 1566, three years before his death. It is one of the best and most characteristic of the master’s works, and has long been housed in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts in Brussels.
Pieter Bruegel senior (who used no “h” in his name) had a stellar reputation, even in his lifetime; today, every one of the 35 works of his that we know are in museums and other institutions, and obviously nothing comes or will ever come to the market. Even when he was alive and actively working, it would have been difficult to obtain a picture – his reputation was such that most went straight to the royal houses of Europe.
His son Pieter, who was born in 1564 and could therefore barely have remembered his father, continued the legacy, slavishly following in his famous father’s footsteps and devoting many of the resources of his own substantial and successful studio to creating versions of the earlier masterworks. There are, in fact, 13 versions of “The Census at Bethlehem”, nine of them in museums. This newly discovered painting therefore counts as the 14th “Census”.
Pieter Brueghel the Younger: ‘The Census at Bethlehem’(Financial Times)