Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569) was a Netherlandish painter and designer for engravings. His works provide a profound and elemental insight into man and his relationship to the world of nature.
Pieter Bruegel lived at a time when northern art was strongly influenced by Italian mannerism, but despite the requisite journey to Italy for purposes of study, he was astonishingly independent of the dominant artistic interests of his day. Instead, he deliberately revived the late Gothic style of Hieronymus Bosch as the point of departure for his own highly complex and original art.
Our major source of information concerning Bruegel is the Dutch biographer Karel van Mander, who wrote in 1604. This near-contemporary of the painter claims that Bruegel was born in a town of the same name near Breda on the modern Dutch-Belgian border. Most recent authorities, however, follow the Italian writer Guicciardini in designating the painter's birthplace as Breda itself.
From the fact that Bruegel entered the Antwerp painters' guild in 1551, we may infer that he was born between 1525 and 1530. His master, according to Van Mander, was the Antwerp painter Pieter Coecke van Aelst, whose daughter Bruegel married in 1563. Between 1552 and 1553 Bruegel went to Italy, probably by way of France. He visited Rome, where he met the miniaturist Giulio Clovio, whose will of 1578 lists three paintings by Bruegel. These works, which apparently were landscapes, have not survived.
About 1555 Bruegel returned to Antwerp by way of the Alps, which resulted in a number of exquisite drawings of mountain landscapes. These sketches, which form the basis for many of his later paintings, are not records of actual places but "composites" made in order to investigate the organic life of forms in nature.
Early Antwerp Style
In 1556 Bruegel entered the house of the Antwerp publisher Hieronymus Cock as a designer for engravings. His pen drawing of that year entitled Big Fish Eat Little Fish was published in 1557 as an engraving by Cock, who substituted Bosch's name for Bruegel's in order to exploit the fashion for Bosch's works then current at Antwerp. The series Seven Deadly Sins, engraved in 1558, however, carries the artist's own signature, a sign of Bruegel's increasing importance. In these works Bruegel, unlike any of his Antwerp contemporaries, achieved a truly creative synthesis of Bosch's demonic symbolism with his own personal vision of human folly and depravity. Despite efforts to dismiss these engravings as "fascinating drolleries," there is evidence to suggest that Bruegel was attempting to substitute a new and more relevant eschatology for Bosch's traditional view of the Christian cosmos.
In Bruegel's earliest signed and dated painting, the Combat of Carnival and Lent (1559), the influence of Bosch is still strongly felt. The high-horizoned landscape, the decorative surface patterning, and many of the iconographic details derive from the earlier Dutch master. There is, however, a new sensitivity to color, particularly in the use of bright, primary hues, and a rhythmic organization of forms that is uniquely Bruegel's. This painting, the Netherlandish Proverbs (1559), and the highly involved Children's Games (1560) form the body of the early "encyclopedic" works which, despite their superficial gaiety, have been shown to be allegories of a foolish and sinful world.
Also related in conception to the encyclopedic paintings are Bruegel's two most phantasmagoric works: the Dulle Griet and the Triumph of Death (both probably executed in 1562). The Dulle Griet is still related to Bosch stylistically, but unlike the works of that painter it is not intended so much as a moral sermon against the depravity of the world as a recognition of the existence of evil in it. This capacity to see evil as inseparable from the human condition carries over into the Triumph of Death, which has also been interpreted as a reference to the outbreak at that time of religious persecutions in the Netherlands.
The last of Bruegel's great "figurative anthologies" is the Tower of Babel (1563). Intended to symbolize the futility of human ambition and perhaps more specifically to criticize the spirit of commercialism then reigning in Antwerp, the panel also contains a new panoramic vista of a vast world. Only distantly related to Bosch's cosmic landscapes, this new world view was to inform most of the artist's subsequent works.
Whatever his reasons for leaving Antwerp, Bruegel took up residence in Brussels in 1563, where he was to remain until his death in 1569. His reputation as one of the greatest of all Netherlandish painters is mainly founded upon the works of this brief but highly productive period.
The Road to Calvary (1564) inaugurates this phase, in which man is increasingly subordinated to the rhythms and patterns of nature. A lower horizon and a new feeling for atmospheric perspective are important stylistic features of this panel, which is one of the few surviving religious works in Bruegel's oeuvre.
In 1565 Bruegel was commissioned to execute a series of pictures of the months for Niclaes Jonghelinck of Antwerp. Based upon the medieval idea of the labors of the seasons as seen, for example, in cathedral sculpture or the illuminations of late Gothic books of hours, Bruegel's series represents a magnificient culmination of this tradition. Of the original group, five paintings have survived. De Tolnay (1935) has very plausibly suggested that each panel portrayed the activities of 2 months, so that only the painting for April and May is lost.
In these beautifully conceived and executed panels Bruegel has achieved a moment of resolution of the previously existing duality between man and nature. The central theme of the cycle is that man, if he follows the order of nature, can avoid the folly for which he is otherwise destined. The role of mankind is portrayed by peasants— anonymous symbols of humanity—who live and work close to the soil in a state of beneficent unity with nature.
The months of December and January are represented by the Hunters in the Snow. A work of great compositional unity, it demonstrates that the activities of men, in order to be good, must conform to the seasonal patterns of nature.
The Dark Day and the Hay Harvest depict the labors of February-March and June-July respectively. In both panels broad panoramic landscapes dominate visually as well as in terms of content the affairs of men, which once again accord with the will of nature.
The months of August and September are portrayed by the golden-hued Wheat Harvest, one of the most lyrical panels in the series. Here Bruegel achieves a greater degree of spatial and figural integration than in the previous paintings, as well as heightened atmospheric effects.
The most brilliant panel in the series is the Return of the Herd, which represents October and November. A magnificent composition, organized along a sequence of intersecting diagonal movements, this painting evokes with unparalleled actuality the scope and grandeur of the natural world.
Through the striking beauty and originality of these seasonal pictures Bruegel enunciated a new coherency in man's relationship to the natural scheme. Casting off the established order and hierarchy of the medieval and Renaissance cosmologies, he substituted a view of a dynamically evolving world that is fundamentally modern in its conception.
Van Mander thought Bruegel's Massacre of the Innocents (ca. 1566) was a criticism of the mounting atrocities of the Spanish Inquisition in the Netherlands. In view of the artist's deliberate use of the setting of a contemporary Flemish village to stage the events, this view has gained acceptance from most recent authorities. Similar in conception, though differing in spirit, is the Numbering at Bethlehem (1566). In this instance, however, Bruegel contemporizes the religious events in order to investigate the varieties of rural life in a winter setting. Here again the religious theme is at best a pretext for Bruegel's basically secular art.
The Peasant Dance (ca. 1566-1567) represents a new and important direction that Bruegel was to develop in the last years of his career. In this work the painter changed to a "large-figure" style in which highly animated peasants are organized to convey the rhythms and patterns of the dance. Also, by reducing forms to their elemental essences Bruegel achieved a clarity of design and coloration that has seldom been rivaled in Western painting.
At about the same time Bruegel completed one of his most famous and beloved works, the Peasant Wedding Feast. Conceived in a spirit of sympathy and affection for country folk, this panel reveals the artist's delightfully droll sense of humor as well as his genius in making universal even the most trivial events.
One of Bruegel's most bizarre works is the Land of Cockaigne (1567). The composition is made up principally of three recumbent figures—a knight, a peasant, and a burgher—whose forms radiate outward from the center of the picture and are intended to produce a sensation of nausea and dislocation in the spectator. In this connection, it has also been observed that the sophisticated device of tilting the ground plane and all the other elements of the design is one aspect of mannerist influence on Bruegel's art.
The Parable of the Blind illustrates the verse from Matthew (14:14): "If the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch." In this great work the descending diagonal formed by the figures of the blind men is enlivened and activated by the use of color, strong hues for the foreground and cooler tones toward the rear. Another development of this period is a heightened sense of atmosphere, the landscape being one of the most vaporous in Bruegel's oeuvre.
This highly sensitive landscape style carries over into what is probably the painter's last work, the Magpie on the Gallows, a panel which, according to Van Mander, Bruegel willed to his wife. The seeming accord between the peasant and his natural environment, one of the main tenets of Bruegel's art, is oddly vitiated by the presence of a gallows at the center of the composition. Brooding over a group of dancing peasants, it forms a striking contrast to the beauties of the setting and serves as a grim reminder of the basic human condition. Whatever interpretation is placed on this panel, Bruegel's painting summarizes all that had gone before and stands at the threshold of the modern era. In its timeless validity, Bruegel's art finds no rival before Rembrandt.
The master may have represented himself in a drawing (ca. 1567) entitled The Artist and the Connoisseur, which portrays two half-length figures: a cynical and embittered painter at work and an oafish, uncritical onlooker. The former, probably a self-portrait, makes no effort to disguise his contempt for the latter, whose conspicuous moneybag reveals his philistine nature.
Bruegel's legacy was most directly transmitted through his two painter sons: Pieter the Younger (1564-1638) and Jan (1568-1625). Well into the 17th century, however, almost all Flemish painters, including Peter Paul Rubens, were indebted to Bruegel's vision of the landscape.
Further Reading on Pieter Bruegel the Elder
The most authoritative book in English on Bruegel is Fritz Grossmann, Bruegel: The Paintings (1955). It contains an exhaustive account of the artist's life and works as well as a thoughtful interpretation of the meaning of the paintings. A brilliant, though controversial, essay on Bruegel's art and its relation to the thought of the period is in Charles de Tolnay, The Drawings of Pieter Bruegel, the Elder, with a Critical Catalogue (1935; trans. 1952). For information on the engraved works see H. Arthur Klein, ed., Graphic Works of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1963). Useful general surveys are Robert L. Delevoy, Bruegel: Historical and Critical Study (1954; trans. 1959), and the excellent essay in Charles D. Cuttler, Northern Painting: From Pucelle to Bruegel (1968).