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Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525 – Sep 9, 1569) was a Netherlandish Renaissance painter and printmaker from Brabant, known for his landscapes and peasant scenes He is sometimes referred to as the “Peasant Bruegel” From 1559, he dropped the “h” from his name and signed his paintings as Bruegel

He was a formative influence on Dutch Golden Age painting and later painting in general in his innovative choices of subject matter, as one of the first generation of artists to grow up when religious subjects had ceased to be the natural subject matter of painting He also painted no portraits, the other mainstay of Netherlandish art After his training and travels to Italy, he returned in 1555 to settle in Antwerp, where he worked mainly as a prolific designer of prints for the leading publisher of the day Only towards the end of the decade did he switch to make painting his main medium, and all his famous paintings come from the following period of little more than a decade before his early death, when he was probably in his early forties, and at the height of his powers

As well as looking forwards, his art reinvigorates medieval subjects such as marginal drolleries of ordinary life in illuminated manuscripts, and the calendar scenes of agricultural labours set in landscape backgrounds, and puts these on a much larger scale than before, and in the expensive medium of oil painting He does the same with the fantastic and anarchic world developed in Renaissance prints and book illustrations

He is sometimes referred to as “Peasant Bruegel”, to distinguish him from the many later painters in his family, including his son Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638) From 1559, he dropped the ‘h’ from his name and signed his paintings as Bruegel; his relatives continued to use “Brueghel” or “Breughel”

The two main early sources for Bruegel’s biography are Lodovico Guicciardini’s account of the Low Countries (1567) and Karel van Mander’s 1604 Schilder-boeck Guicciardini recorded that Bruegel was born in Breda, but van Mander specified that Bruegel was born in a village near Breda called “Brueghel”, which does not fit any known place Nothing at all is known of his family background Van Mander seems to assume he came from a peasant background, in keeping with the over-emphasis on Bruegel’s peasant genre scenes given by van Mander and many early art historians and critics

In contrast, scholars of the last 60 years have emphasized the intellectual content of his work, and conclude: “There is, in fact, every reason to think that Pieter Bruegel was a townsman and a highly educated one, on friendly terms with the humanists of his time”, ignoring van Mander’s dorf and just placing his childhood in Breda itself Breda was already a significant centre as the base of the House of Orange-Nassau, with a population of some 8,000, although 90% of the 1300 houses were destroyed in a fire in 1534 However, this reversal can be taken to excess; although Bruegel moved in highly educated humanist circles, it seems “he had not mastered Latin”, and had others add the Latin captions in some of his drawings

From the fact that Bruegel entered the Antwerp painters’ guild in 1551, it is inferred that he was born between 1525 and 1530 His master, according to van Mander, was the Antwerp painter Pieter Coecke van Aelst, whose daughter Maria (called ‘Mayken’) Bruegel married in 1563

Between 1545 and 1550 he was a pupil of Pieter Coecke, who died on 6 December 1550 However, before this Bruegel was already working in Mechelen, where he is documented between September 1550 and October 1551 assisting Peeter Baltens on an altarpiece (now lost), painting the wings in grisaille Bruegel possibly got this work via the connections of Mayken Verhulst, the wife of Pieter Coecke Mayken’s father and eight siblings were all artists or married an artist, and lived in Mechelen

In 1551 Bruegel became a free master in the Guild of Saint Luke of Antwerp He set off for Italy soon after, probably by way of France He visited Rome and, rather adventurously for the period, by 1552 he had reached Reggio Calabria at the southern tip of the mainland, where a drawing records the city in flames after a Turkish raid He probably continued to Sicily, but by 1553 was back in Rome There he met the miniaturist Giulio Clovio, whose will of 1578 lists paintings by Bruegel; in one case a joint work These works, apparently landscapes, have not survived, but marginal miniatures in manuscripts by Clovio are attributed to Bruegel

He left Italy by 1554, and had reached Antwerp by 1555, when the set of prints to his designs known as the Large Landscapes were published by Hieronymus Cock, the most important print publisher of northern Europe Bruegel’s return route is uncertain, but much of the debate over it was made irrelevant in the 1980s when it was realized that the celebrated series of large drawings of mountain landscapes thought to have been made on the trip were not by Bruegel at all However, all the drawings from the trip that are considered authentic are of landscapes; unlike most other 16th-century artists visiting Rome he seems to have ignored both classical ruins and contemporary buildings

From his return to Italy in 1554/5 until 1563, the year of his marriage Bruegel lived in Antwerp, then the publishing centre of northern Europe, mainly working as a designer of over 40 prints for Cock, though his dated paintings begin in 1557 With one exception, Bruegel did not work the plates himself, but produced a drawing which Cock’s specialists worked from He moved in the lively Humanist circles of the city, and his change of name (or at least its spelling) in 1559 can be seen as an attempt to latinize it; at the same time he changed the script he signed in from the gothic blackletter to Roman capitals

In 1563 he was married in Brussels, where he lived for the rest of his life While Antwerp was the capital of Netherlandish commerce as well as the art market, Brussels was the centre of government Van Mander tells a story that his mother-in-law pushed for the move to distance him from his established servant girl mistress By now painting had become his main activity, and his most famous works come from these years His paintings were much sought after, with patrons including wealthy Flemish collectors and Cardinal Granvelle, in effect the Habsburg chief minister, who was based in Mechelen Bruegel had two sons, both well known as painters, and a daughter about whom nothing is known These were Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564–1638) and Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625); he died too early to train either of them He died in Brussels on 9 September 1569 and was buried in the Kapellekerk

Van Mander records that before he died he told his wife to burn some drawings, perhaps designs for prints, carrying inscriptions “which were too sharp or sarcasticeither out of remorse or for fear that she might come to harm or in some way be held responsible for them”, which has led to much speculation that they were politically or doctrinally provocative, in a climate of sharp tension in both these areas

Bruegel was born at a time of extensive change in Western Europe Humanist ideals from the previous century influenced artists and scholars in Europe Italy was at the end of their High Renaissance of arts and culture, when artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci painted their masterpieces In 1517, about eight years before Bruegel’s birth, Martin Luther created his Ninety-five Theses and began the Protestant Reformation in neighboring Germany Reformation was accompanied by iconoclasm, and widespread destruction of art, including in Low Countries In response the Catholic Church which viewed Protestantism and its iconoclasm as a threat to the church, at the Council of Trent, which concluded in 1563, determined that religious art should be more focused on religious subject-matter, and less on material things and decorative qualities

At this time, the Low Countries was divided into Seventeen Provinces, some of which wanted separation from the Habsburg rule based in Spain The Reformation meanwhile produced a number of Protestant denominations, which gained followers in the Seventeen Provinces, influenced by the newly Lutheran German states to the east and the newly Anglican England to the west The Habsburg monarchs of Spain attempted a policy of strict religious uniformity for the Catholic Church within their domains, and enforced it with the Inquisition Increasing religious antagonisms and riots, political manoeuvrings, and executions, eventually resulted in the outbreak of Eighty Years’ War

This was the atmosphere in which Bruegel reached the height of his career as a painter Two years before Bruegel’s death, the Eighty Years’ War began between the United Provinces and Spain Although Bruegel did not live to see it, seven provinces became independent and formed The Dutch Republic, while the other ten remained under Habsburg control at the end of the war

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Pieter Bruegel specialized in genre paintings populated by peasants, often with a landscape element, but he also painted religious works Making the life and manners of peasants the main focus of a work was rare in painting in Bruegel’s time, and he was a pioneer of the genre painting Many of his peasant paintings fall into two groups in terms of scale and composition, both of which were original and influential on later painting His earlier style shows dozens of small figures, seen from a high viewpoint, and spread fairly evenly across the central picture space The setting is typically an urban space surrounded by buildings, within which the figures have a “fundamentally disconnected manner of portrayal”, with individuals or small groups engaged in their own distinct activity, while ignoring all the others Over the 1560s he moved to a style showing only a few large figures, typically in a landscape background without a distant view His paintings dominated by their landscapes take a middle course as regards both the number and size of figures

His earthy, unsentimental but vivid depiction of the rituals of village life—including agriculture, hunts, meals, festivals, dances, and games—are unique windows on a vanished folk culture, though still characteristically of Belgian life and culture today, and a prime source of iconographic evidence about both physical and social aspects of 16th century life For example, his famous painting Flemish Proverbs, originally The Blue Cloak illustrates dozens of then-contemporary aphorisms, many of which still are in use in current Flemish, French, English and Dutch, and Children’s Games shows the variety of amusements enjoyed by young people His winter landscapes of 1565 (eg The Hunters in the Snow) are taken as corroborative evidence of the severity of winters during the Little Ice Age

Using abundant spirit and comic power, he created some of the very early images of acute social protest in art history Examples include paintings such as The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (a satire of the conflicts of the Protestant Reformation) and engravings like The Ass in the School and Strongboxes Battling Piggybanks

By 1558, Bruegel began painting more than drawing or designing prints He began by painting religious scenes in a wide Flemish landscape setting, as in the Conversion of Paul and The Sermon of St John the Baptist In the 1560s, Bruegel began painting the ordinary life of peasants Often Bruegel painted a community event, as in The Peasant Wedding and The Fight Between Carnival and Lent In paintings like The Peasant Wedding, Bruegel painted individual, identifiable people while the people in The Fight Between Carnival and Lent are unidentifiable, muffin-faced allegories of greed or gluttony

Although Bruegel often painted scenes of carousing and community gatherings, he often accurately depicted cripples or people with disabilities Perhaps one of Bruegel’s most famous paintings was The Blind Leading the Blind Not only was Bruegel’s subject matter unusual, but it also depicted a quote from the Bible: “If the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch” (Matthew 15:14) Using the Bible to interpret this painting, the six blind men are symbols of the blindness of mankind in pursuing earthly goals instead of focusing on Christ’s teachings

Even if Bruegel’s subject matter was unconventional, the religious ideals and proverbs driving his paintings were typical of the Northern Renaissance The Flemish environment provided a large artistic audience for proverb-filled paintings because proverbs were well known and recognizable as well as entertaining One of Bruegel’s most famous paintings remains his Netherlandish Proverbs, painted in 1559 The majority of Bruegel’s paintings have many different actions occurring at once, but this painting, with over 110 proverbs, must have been one of his most symbolically laden paintings

Bruegel adapted and made more natural the world landscape style, which shows small figures in an imaginary panoramic landscape seen from an elevated viewpoint that includes mountains and lowlands, water, and buildings Back in Antwerp from Italy he was commissioned in the 1550s by the publisher Hieronymus Cock to make drawings for a series of engravings, the Large Landscapes, to meet what was now a growing demand for landscape images

Some of his earlier paintings, such as his Landscape with the Flight into Egypt (Courtauld, 1563), are fully within the Patinir conventions, but his Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (known from two copies) had a Patinir-style landscape, in which already the largest figure was a genre figure who was only a bystander for the supposed narrative subject, and may not even be aware of it The date of Bruegel’s lost original is unclear, but it is probably relatively early, and if so, foreshadows the trend of his later works During the 1560s the early scenes crowded with multitudes of very small figures, whether peasant genre figures or figures in religious narratives, give way to a small number of much larger figures

His famous set of landscapes with genre figures depicting the seasons are the culmination of his landscape style; the five surviving paintings use the basic elements of the world landscape (only one lacks craggy mountains) but transform them into his own style They are larger than most previous works, with a genre scene with several figures in the foreground, and the panoramic view seen past or through trees Bruegel was also aware of the Danube School’s landscape style through prints

The series on the months of the year includes several of Bruegel’s best-known works In 1565, a wealthy patron in Antwerp, Niclaes Jonghelinck, commissioned him to paint a series of paintings of each month of the year There has been disagreement among art historians as to whether the series originally included six or twelve works Today, only five of these paintings survive and some of the months are paired to form a general season Traditional Flemish luxury books of hours (eg, the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry; 1416) had calendar pages that included the Labours of the Months, depictions set in landscapes of the agricultural tasks, weather, and social life typical for that month

Bruegel’s paintings were on a far larger scale than a typical calendar page painting, each one approximately three feet by five feet For Bruegel, this was a large commission (the size of a commission was based on how large the painting was) and an important one In 1565, the Calvinist riots began and it was only two years before the Eighty Years’ War broke out Bruegel may have felt safer with a secular commission so as to not offend Calvinist or Catholic Some of the most famous paintings from this series included The Hunters in the Snow (December–January) and The Harvesters (August)

On his return from Italy to Antwerp, Bruegel earned his living producing drawings to be turned into prints for the leading print publisher of the city, and indeed northern Europe, Hieronymus Cock At his “House of the Four Winds” Cock ran a well-oiled production and distribution operation efficiently turning out prints of many sorts that was more concerned with sales than the finest artistic achievement Most of Bruegel’s prints come from this period, but he continued to produce drawn designs for prints until the end of his life, leaving only two completed out of a series of the Four Seasons The prints were popular and it is reasonable to assume that all those published have survived In many cases we also have Bruegel’s drawings Although the subject matter of his graphic work was often continued in his paintings, there are considerable differences in emphases between the two oeuvres To his contemporaries and for long after, until public museums and good reproductions of the paintings made these better known, Bruegel was much better known through his prints than his paintings, which largely explains the critical assessment of him as merely the creator of comic peasant scenes

The prints are mostly engravings, though from about 1559 onwards some are etchings or mixtures of both techniques Only one complete woodcut was made from a Bruegel design, with another left incomplete This, The Dirty Wife, is a most unusual survival (now Metropolitan Museum of Art) of a drawing on the wooden block intended for printing For some reason, the specialist block-cutter who carved away the block, following the drawing while also destroying it, had only done one corner of the design before stopping work The design then appears as an engraving, perhaps soon after Bruegel’s death

Among his greatest successes were a series of allegories, among several designs adopting many of the very individual mannerisms of his compatriot Hieronymus Bosch: The Seven Deadly Sins and The Virtues The sinners are grotesque and unidentifiable while the allegories of virtue often wear odd headgear That imitations of Bosch sold well is demonstrated by his drawing Big Fish Eat Little Fish (now Albertina), which Bruegel signed but Cock shamelessly attributed to Bosch in the print version

Although Bruegel presumably made them, no drawings that are clearly preparatory studies for paintings survive Most surviving drawings are finished designs for prints, or landscape drawings that are fairly finished After a considerable purge of attributions in recent decades, led by Hans Mielke, 61 sheets of drawings are now generally agreed to be by Bruegel A new “Master of the Mountain Landscapes” has emerged from the carnage Mielke’s key observation was that the lily watermark on the paper of several sheets was only found from around 1580 onwards, which led to the rapid acceptance of his proposal Another group of about 25 pen drawings of landscapes, many signed and dated as by Bruegel, are now given to Jacob Savery, probably from the decade of so before Savery’s death in 1603 A giveaway was that two drawings including the walls of Amsterdam were dated 1563 but included elements only built in the 1590s This group appears to have been made as deliberate forgeries