Jan Brueghel the Younger was born in Antwerp in 1601. At a young age he travelled to Italy, where he worked at the court of the archbishop of Milan, Borromeo, who had also been patron to his father, Jan Brueghel the Elder (the “velvet” Brueghel). In Genoa he worked together with his friend Anthony van Dyck. In 1625 Jan II returned to Antwerp, where he became a member of the guild of St. Luke in the same year and took over the workshop of his recently deceased father. He enjoyed immediate success and cooperated with many of the artists his father had collaborated with: Rubens, Hendrick van Balen, Joos de Momper and many others. Jan II Brueghel could count several of the time’s important power-holders among his clients, such as Leopold Wilhelm, governor of the Netherlands, and the Duke of Savoy.
Not only did Jan Brueghel the Younger follow his father thematically, painting flower pieces, landscapes and animals, but also stylistically. Because of this, is is not always easy to distinguish his work from his father’s. The present work, however, has been extensively researched by Dr. Klaus Ertz – the expert on the Brueghel family – and as a result has been attributed with certainty to Jan II, based on technical and stylistic arguments.
The current picture depicts a mythological theme, the triumph of Bacchus. The iconography goes back to Ovid’s Fasti, III, 713-771, where the author describes the return of the wine god from India. This theme became widespread during the renaissance; the subject of the return of Bacchus became know in the north thanks to the circulation of engravings and inspired painters like Hendrick van Balen and Jan Brueghel. Often mythological paintings were collaborative works. In this painting Jan II first painted the landscape. Then Hendrick van Balen (and his workshop) painted in the staffage, after which Jan II finished details such as the wine glasses and the wine ranks. Based on stylistic and iconographical details the painting can be dated to around 1630.
Two other, almost identical versions exist of the present composition, both in German museums: one can be seen in the Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe (oil on copper, 40 x 53,5 cm), the other in the Gemäldegalerie, Schloss Weissenstein (oil on panel, 47 x 64 cm). As a third version of this theme, the present painting may be considered an excellent example of Flemish mythological painting in the seventeenth century, and a worthy addition to Jan II Brueghel’s oeuvre.