Note: Unique for its subject, this Study of a mouse and a turtle is a real curiosity cabinet in its own right. Painting with a zoologist’s eye, Jan Brueghel the Younger studied the insects and sea creatures that his father depicted in his series Allegories of the Elements, striving to represent the species in all their complexity. Mimesis or imitatio, the concept of rendering the most exact illusion possible of nature, was introduced in classical antiquity but was rediscovered in the Renaissance. In the seventeenth century, studies of plants and animals, drawings, watercolours and engravings flourished, with even greater attention paid to the precision of the detail.
In this study, Brueghel the Younger departs from the compositional model offered by Joris Hoefnagel (1573-1633) in which the elements are arranged symmetrically, in favour of a scattered arrangement against a neutral background allowing each motif to stand out individually. The group formed by the different species is unexpected, with no obvious logical association between the creatures, attesting to the artistic liberty the painter brought to this study. However, beyond the choice of species depicted, it is their rendering that makes this study truly unique. Brueghel makes no scientific claims but simply relies on his creative power to bring each animal to life; the scale of the plane on which they are represented is significant, as it does not correspond to direct observation, otherwise, the dragonfly would clearly have to be smaller than the mouse or the turtle.
The brushwork is vibrant, with a spontaneous feel that heightens the impression of life with which the artist imbues his subjects. Far from being frozen or dull specimens, the turtle, mouse, insects and fish seem to come alive in their dynamic poses and in the way they catch the light ; Brueghel modulates meticulously crafted light-play to capture the reflections on their bodies, further enhancing the sense of vigour they project. But it is surely the handling of the colour that makes this study an illustration of Brueghel’s skill as a colourist, as the creatures stand out like glittering jewels; the deep contrasts and rich hues considerably enhance the various textures and volumes, the shiny scales of the turtle or fish, the translucent parts of the dragonfly or the beaded surface of the caterpillar.
This mouse can also be seen as an echo of the one depicted by Joris Hoefnagel in his Allegory for Johannes Muizenhol, signed and dated 1594, but one can only conclude, in summary, that the studies by Brueghel display a freedom and a unique vision of their own, as evidenced by this panel.