A Family Reunion – THE BREUGHELS at the Noordbrabants Museum

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Beggars 1568. Musée du Louvre Paris. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) Gérard Blot

There are a number of artist families in art history and probably the most prolific is the Brueghel family (or Bruegel as it is sometimes spelled as well). Five generations of painters enriched European art with their amusing but relatively small and intimate compositions.

The Brueghels were active between 1550-1700 in a wide variety of genres: everyday life peasant scenes, landscapes, allegorical, mythological and history scenes, flower still lives.

The most famous member is Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and his sons Jan Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Brueghel the Younger were quickly stepping in his footsteps. Of the 40 surviving paintings by Pieter the Elder, three hang in the Brueghel Family show in the Noordbrabants Museum in Den Bosch including The Beggars from the Louvre and the ravishing The Magpie on the Gallows from the Landesmuseum in Darmstadt.

In this exhibition Mayken Verhulst is finally positioned as the Mater Familias of the Brueghel family. In her day she was well known, for she is mentioned in contemporary sources as one of the most meritorious 16th-century female painters of watercolours, all of which were unfortunately lost (Ludovico Guicciardini, Descrittione di tutti I Paesi Bassi from 1567). What did survive is a double portrait of her and her husband, which is very likely painted by them both and which is also present on the exhibition.

She grew up in the painting studio of her father, Peeter Verhulst (1492-1553), where from an early age she absorbed the many facets of art practice. All this knowledge she brought with her when she married Coecke van Aelst thus resulting in an artistic partnership.

When Pieter died, she took over their workshop studio which sold paintings, tapestries and prints. As a keen business woman she also posthumously published his drawings he initially intended to be uses for tapestries and which turned out to be extremely successful.

Their daughter Mayken Coecke married Pieter Brueghel the Elder who had two children, Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Jan Brueghel the Elder. The couple died relatively young so Mayken kept the archive and drawings of her genius son-in-law and passed them on to her grandchildren Pieter II and Jan I, to whom she also gave their first art instruction.

Especially Jan I had a whole bunch of children who were able to carry on the family company. For instance, his son Jan married Anna Maria Janssens who was a painter of flower still lives, and also their children – being the fifth generation – manifested themselves as artists.

The daughters of Jan Brueghel the Elder Anna and Clara Eugenia were also instrumental for the success of the family business. Anna’s work has not survived but she depicted a number in the paintings by her husband David Teniers II. Her wealth and family connections helped him break into the highest artist circles and her would eventually become court painter in Brussels.

Clara Eugenia probably did not paint herself but would become head of one of the largest and richest women’s communities in the western world, the Great Beguinage of Mechelen and provided the family members with a number of commissions.

The artistic DNA of Pieter Coecke van Aelst en Mayken Verhulst thus resulted in a successful family business that lasted five generations and it was largely through the efforts Mayken Verhulst that Brueghel became a brand name.  Wendy  Fossen  3rd January 2024