In the bible the Parable of the Blind explains that man should only trust God. This subject was regularly treated in 16th and early 17th century Flemish painting. The best-known composition is by Pieter Brueghel the Elder; it dates from 1568.
The different treatments of the blind leading the blind should be seen against the contemporary events within society, especially the rise of Protestantism.
Could the seven blind in our painting refer to the Seven Dutch Provinces that fought during 80 years to finally get independent from Spain in 1648?
About the subject of our painting
The theme of the parable of the blind leading the blind is biblical, it derives from Matthew, XV: 13-14.
Christ, when told that he had angered the Pharisees by criticising their spiritual leadership, had replied : “Let them alone: they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.”
So it was understood that man should trust no one else but God, in all other cases misfortune will happen.
The best-known 16th century painting representing the blind leading the blind (six men in total) is of course the one by Pieter Brueghel the Elder from the Capodimonte Museum in Naples dating from 1568.
But the eldest treatment of the subject, dating from the early 16th century, must have been made by Hieronymus Bosch. That drawing is lost, but it is known through an engraving (showing two blind people in the foreground and two more in the background) by Pieter van der Heyden. It was published by Hieronymus Cock in or circa 1561.
Cornelis Massys made already another composition and engraving of this subject circa 1540, with four blind figures.
Pieter Brueghel the Younger made several versions of his father’s iconic composition from 1568, three of them are in public collections: in the Louvre, Paris, in the Galleria Nazionale, Parma and in the collection of the Princes of Lichtenstein, Vienna.
Before these versions by Pieter Brueghel II another Flemish painter, Maerten van Cleve, who was actually a contemporary of Pieter I, made several versions of this theme, some of which might have been influenced by the composition by Pieter the Elder (Basel, Kunstmuseum), but others seemingly much more original (Christie’s London, 8/12/05).
The subject remained popular in the first half of the 17th century. There is for example the composition by Sebastiaen Vrancx with five blind (four men and a woman), plus a dog of which two versions exist in mirror view. Both versions were sold at the same Sotheby’s sale in London in 2007. They were probably inspired by a lost lithograph after a lost painting by Pieter Brueghel I.
Our painter has chosen for seven men, though of the last one only his hat is visible.
About our painting
Pieter Brueghel the Elder painted his quintessential masterpiece at a time of religious conflicts in the Low Countries as a warning not to follow foolishly the advice of imprudent men. Protestants were not only fighting Catholics; they were divided by schisms and divisions themselves.
Blindness recurs again and again as a familiar charge made by each faction when castigating its opponents.
But then who are the seven blind in our painting, dating from the first half of the 17th century? Could they refer to the Seven Dutch Provinces that were finally and permanently lost for the Spanish Habsburg with the Peace Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Flanders’ ten provinces remained Spanish and Catholic.
Why should you buy this painting?
Because the parable of the blind leading the blind is a typical Flemish theme of the 16th and first half of the 17th century.