This exceptional landscape first came to light at a sale in 1991, where it passed as a signed work by Jan Brueghel the Elder. When acquired the following year by Maida and George Abrams, it was attributed to an unidentified sixteenth-century Flemish artist. In 1994, Hans Mielke recognized the hand of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and affirmed that the inscription of the artist’s name at the lower left of the sheet is his autograph signature. In his catalogue raisonné of the artist’s drawings, Mielke singled out as unmistakable hallmarks of Bruegel’s technique the elegantly tapering branches of the foreground trees tipped with foliage abbreviated by pen strokes resembling the numeral 3, as well as the pattern of dots and irregular parallel lines that evoke the crowns of distant trees. He related the Harvard sheet to two landscapes by the artist in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, dating it to 1553 on the basis of its technical and stylistic kinship with Landscape with the Penitence of Saint Jerome (Fig. 1) and other drawings of that year. That Bruegel had inscribed the date 1554 to the left of his signature was only discovered after the publication of Mielke’s catalogue.
About half of the roughly sixty surviving drawings by Bruegel represent landscapes. The Harvard drawing is one of two on blue (presumably Venetian) paper and the unique example of a work with highlights in white opaque watercolor. Bruegel began with a preliminary sketch in black chalk, the full extent of which is revealed in the infrared reflectogram (Fig. 2), and worked it up with ink, wash, and opaque watercolor. Although Mielke dismissed the opaque watercolor as a “rather awkward” addition by a later hand, it is surely original to the drawing. Bruegel’s choice of the blue paper support—a middle tone against which the draftsman works up and down the value scale—implies the eventual use of white heightening, and the combination occurs in numerous sixteenth-century Netherlandish drawings. Without the opaque watercolor, Bruegel’s composition would be incomplete, with many essential forms indicated only by the black-chalk sketch. The four trees at the far left and those in front of the church, for example, are rendered substantially in opaque watercolor over the chalk outlines. In most passages where the media came into contact, the opaque watercolor was applied over the pen work, as one would expect. However, in a few places the ink lines run over the watercolor, proof that Bruegel redrew selected contours after he added the heightening. While Netherlandish draftsmen had used white opaque watercolor on prepared blue paper since the early sixteenth century, the Italian context, as Royalton-Kisch noted, influenced Bruegel’s choice of media and support. Not only was the dyed blue paper that Bruegel selected for Wooded Landscape with a Distant View toward the Sea and his 1552 River Landscape widely available from Venetian paper mills, but contemporary Italians such as Federico Barocci used it for landscapes that are similar in technique to the Harvard work.
In the drawings he produced in Italy from 1552 to 1554, Bruegel formulated compositional ideas that would inform his later paintings and prints and affect the course of landscape art in the Netherlands into the seventeenth century. These works incorporate into the Flemish tradition the dynamic space and sinuous trees that he encountered in drawings and woodcuts by Titian and Domenico Campagnola. That he actively engaged with the Venetian model is documented by his free copy, datable to around 1554, after a Campagnola landscape. In the Harvard drawing, he appropriated from the Venetians the grand, intertwined trees with undulating trunks and gracefully proliferating foliage that dominate the foreground, combining them with a panoramic scan over a Flemish church toward a faraway coast and high horizon recalling the “world landscapes” of Joachim Patinir and his followers.