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Accompanying a focused display at The Courtauld Gallery that will bring together for the first time Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s only three known grisaille paintings – the Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (which is barred from travel), The Death of the Virgin from Upton House in Warwickshire (National Trust) and Three Soldiers from the Frick Collection in New York – this book will examine the sources, function and reception of these three exquisite masterpieces. The panels will be complemented by prints and contemporary replicas, as well by other independent grisailles in order to shed light on the development of this genre in Northern Europe.
Despite his status as the seminal Netherlandish painter of the 16th century, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525–1569) remains an elusive artist: fewer than forty paintings are ascribed to him. Of these, a dozen are cabinet-sized. These small-scale works offer key insights as they often bear a personal significance for the artist and were sometimes given as gifts to friends and patrons. Presenting these works together for the first time is not only an extraordinary and unprecedented opportunity but it will be extremely revealing, considering their unusual nature in both Bruegel’s oeuvre and 16th-century art in general.
Monochrome painting in shades of grey was a mainstay of Netherlandish art from the early 15th century, most often present on the wings of altarpieces and preparatory sketches for engravings. In contrast, Bruegel’s panels constitute one of the earliest and rare examples of independent cabinet pictures in grisaille, created for private contemplation and enjoyment. This seemingly austere type of painting has often been imbued with religious or political significance. On a purely artistic level, it enabled the painter to showcase his skill by limiting his palette. The publication, which includes a technical investigation of the three panels, will provide the opportunity to reassess the practical aspects of the grisaille technique and the many ways in which this effect was achieved. Indeed, Bruegel’s three monochromatic paintings display quite different techniques, raising the question of the painter’s intent.
This is the latest in the series of books accompanying critically acclaimed Courtauld Gallery displays, following on from Collecting Gauguin (2013), Antiquity Unleashed (2013), Richard Serra (2013), A Dialogue with Nature (2014), Bruegel to Freud (2014) and Jonathan Richardson (2015).