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Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Two Monkeys, 1562

Pieter Bruegel painted, signed and dated this small, charming, and at the same time puzzling painting in 1562, seven years before his death. It features two chained monkeys set against a backdrop of the city of Antwerp. In 2019, to mark the 450th anniversary of the year of his death, various European museums have been celebrating the artist, with one of the major events being the exhibition BRUEGEL – The Hand of the Master, which was held at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna from October 2018 to January 2019. For this exhibition, the Gemäldegalerie carried out investigations on this panel painting, allowing for a step-by-step reconstruction of its production process.

Technical Research

The analysis of the panel painting involved a whole range of examination methods: tree-ring dating (dendrochronology), investigation with a stereomicroscope and UV radiation, X-ray imaging, infrared reflectography, micro and macro X-ray fluorescence analyses. Through these techniques, we were able to establish the pigments used by the artist, his painting technique and the procedure by which the picture was produced. For example, it was only in the course of these investigations that the discolouration of the blue pigment used for the sky and the water (smalt) became evident. In addition, historical sources on painting techniques provided information on the manufacture of paints in Bruegel’s time, enabling comparisons with the findings of the analyses.

Reconstruction of the Creation Process

Based on this information, the production process was able to be laid out in a series of true to scale panels that reflect the steps in the original creation process as faithfully as possible. Historical recipes were also used to recreate the white lead pigment. The application of the underdrawing and the paint was carried out in the restoration department of the Gemäldegalerie, allowing restorer and copyist Bertram Lorenz to work directly from the original. The making of the reconstruction enabled a new understanding of the production process of the painting, which in turn provided additional, new and interesting discoveries about the behaviour of the paints.

Exhibition and Publication

Together with information on the research outcomes, the six newly produced panels formed a didactic module that the Gemäldegalerie contributed to the exhibition in Vienna. This section of the exhibition is now being displayed together with Bruegel’s original in the Gemäldegalerie. An article that describes in detail the research findings and the knowledge acquired through the making of the reconstruction will be published by the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna later this year (B. Hartwieg, B. Lorenz, S. Kemperdick, “Pieter Bruegel’s panel ‘Two Monkeys’ – Technological research and the making of a reconstruction”).

Cooperation partner and funding: Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien
Duration: January 2017 to August 2017
Exhibit duration: October 2018 to January 2019 (Vienna), 10 September 2019 to 5 January 2020 (Berlin)
Technological Analysis: Babette Hartwieg, Bertram Lorenz, Christoph Schmidt, Gemäldegalerie; Macro XRF scanning: Arie Wallert Universität Amsterdam/TU Delft
Reconstruction: Bertram Lorenz