Jan I Brueghel was the second son of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, born a few months before the death of his father. He changed the spelling of his name to Breughel. He was first the pupil of his grandmother, Marie de Bessemers, the widow of Pieter Couke of Alost, who had brought him up from birth. She taught him the arts of miniature and watercolour painting, skills that may explain the particular delicacy and fluidity in his use of colour. He also worked with Peter de Goetkint and soon earned a reputation as a painter of fruit and flowers.
He went to Italy, passing through Cologne, and was in Naples in 1590 and in Rome from 1593 to 1594. Here he got to know Cardinal Federico Borromeo who summoned him to work for him in Milan in 1595. By the time he returned to Flanders in 1597, his style was fully established and his fame considerable.
He settled down in Antwerp and two years later married Isabelle de Jode. The couple had two children, Jan II, born in 1601, and Paschasie who married Hieronymus Van Kessel. In 1605, his wife died and he married Catharina Van Marienbourg. His children from this marriage were Ambrosius and Anna. On 4 July 1637, Anna was to become the first wife of David Teniers.
From 1604 to 1609, Jan Brueghel's financial situation was so favourable that he owned six properties in Antwerp. As a fashionable painter, in 1609 he was summoned to the court in Brussels by Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabelle, the governors of the southern Netherlands. They commissioned four paintings and 11 large compositions with figures and landscapes. He held an important position in the guild in Antwerp and was its dean in 1602. He was also a member of the Society of 'La Violette' (The Violet). He played an active part in the artistic life of the town, being particularly involved with professional bodies.
In 1997-1998, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna mounted a large exhibition devoted to the work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (known as the 'Peasant Bruegel'), Pieter Brueghel the Younger ('Hell Brueghel') and Jan Brueghel the Elder ('Velvet Brueghel'). The aim of this very well-documented exhibition, supplemented with many drawings, was to make it possible to compare the three painters side by side.
It revealed how there had been such a thing as a Brueghel workshop or school, the sons drawing on styles and themes originated by their father, as was customary during that period and is well illustrated by the Cranach family. And yet, given the date of the death of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, it is important to stress that, in the case of the Brueghels, there could be no question of direct instruction or influence. Some critics regarded the sons' work as copies of what their father had done, though inferior and devoid of any real personality. To take this point of view is to ignore the significance of the nicknames 'Hell' and 'Velvet' that clearly shows the differences between the work of the two brothers, while revealing what they had drawn from their father's work.
He was admired, above all, for his 'rustic' or 'humorous' depictions but this oversimplifies his talents and should not mean that his sons should be judged by the same reductionist criteria. In the third generation, on the other hand, Jan II succeeded so well in imitating the work of his father, Jan Brueghel the Elder, that it is often difficult to distinguish the father's late work from the son's juvenilia.
Jan Brueghel's time in Italy had transformed his style and given him a new appreciation of landscape. He learned how to blend and shade his colours so as to skilfully and harmoniously bring out juxtaposed bright, pure tones. In this way, he was able to give a clarity to his compositions of landscapes with such large numbers of figures; each group of peasants enveloped in a light and luminous atmosphere. The multiplicity of details in no way damages the freshness of this colourful vision, so characteristic of the 'Velvet' Brueghel. It also explains how he acquired his nickname.
The father was admired for his still-lifes and flower paintings. He made these decorative objects, previously considered to be of secondary importance, the principal subjects of his paintings. Thus, with more assurance than Bosschaert, he led the way for the great still-life painters of the 17th century.
In his rendering of allegorical subjects, his enthusiasm for the details of still-lifes and flowers seems inexhaustible. In the series of the Five Senses, painted in 1617-1618 (Prado), each goddess is surrounded by not only cupids but also all the objects associated with the sense she represents. With great skill he presents us with richly coloured flowers, flasks of perfume, musical instruments and food, all arranged in an apparent disorder.
A friend and collaborator of Rubens, he often painted the landscapes or flowers in Rubens' works. This division of labour, according to the particular specialisation of each artist, would today be unthinkable. At the time it was perfectly acceptable and can even be seen as anticipating the group works - although inspired by very different concerns - of modern artists. Velvet Brueghel painted the garlands of flowers surrounding Rubens' Virgin and Child and similarly collaborated in Rubens' painting in The Hague, Adam and Eve in the Earthly Paradise. He also painted the landscape backgrounds in a number of works by Von Baalen, Momper, Rottenhammer, Frans Francken and P Neefs. The recommendation of Rubens and other contemporaries should be enough to persuade us that Jan 'Velvet' Brueghel's talent went far beyond that of merely imitating his father.