An auction house appraiser found a 17th-century painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger behind a door in a northern French home. “The Village Lawyer” (1615-1617) depicts peasants in a greedy lawyer’s office, a scene Brueghel painted dozens of times. The work has been authenticated and it’s heading to an auction in Paris on March 28.
The appraiser, Malo de Lussac, told Hyperallergic he was “very surprised” when he found the painting. The family who owned the work always referred to it as “the Brueghel,” but thought it was a copy. (The painting’s provenance before the family acquired it in 1900 is unknown.)
“I immediately had a very good feeling about this painting,” said de Lussac. “But I preferred to be very careful about its authentication.”
Stéphane Pinta, an expert at the Paris-based firm Cabinet Turquin, examined the painting with the help of a conservator at the Louvre. The team later presented the work to Flemish Old Master specialist and Brueghel historian Klaus Ertz, who confirmed that it was real.
The work turned out to be not just a Brueghel original but a rare work by the artist.
“It’s a huge painting,” de Lussac said. At over three and a half by six feet, it’s reportedly one of the largest of Brueghel the Younger’s known works and is also in “exceptionally good condition.” Daguerre Val de Loire estimates that it will sell for €600,000 to €800,000 (~$638,328–851,104).
Pieter Brueghel the Younger is the son of the arguably better-known artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who painted masterpieces including “Hunters in the Snow” (1565) and “The Harvesters” (1565) as well as satirical works such as “Netherlandish Proverbs” (1559). Bruegel the Elder was a leading figure in the Northern Renaissance, but his son made a name for himself as well. While much of Brueghel the Younger’s body of work consists of well-executed replicas of his father’s paintings, the artist also created original compositions depicting the rowdiness and vulgarity (and excessive drunkenness) of 17th-century Flemish peasant life while interrogating larger social structures.
“The Village Lawyer” offers a prime example of the artist’s biting social commentary. Brueghel has taken a more sympathetic approach to his peasant subjects and paints the money-hungry lawyer as the clear villain. The well-dressed man wears a condescending facial expression as he sits behind his desk. According to de Lussac, the lawyer is collecting taxes from the village’s farmers. As the desperate townspeople wait, the lawyer hides behind what can only be assumed to be useless stacks of paperwork, literally creating a barrier between himself and the poorer people paying him.
“It’s a critique of the Spanish occupation on the Flemish land,” de Lussac said. He pointed out that they lawyer has a “Habsburg face.” Characterized by a protruding jawline, the distinctive appearance was repeatedly depicted in portraits of Spanish royals.
Brueghel painted a nearly identical version of “The Village Lawyer” that hangs at the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent in Belgium, and another almost identical copy is located at the Louvre in Paris, but the museum thinks that work is a follower’s copy.
The newly discovered painting will be exhibited at Paris’s Hôtel Drouot from March 11 through March 17 before it hits the auction block.