Sunday, April 4, 2010


By name Peasant Bruegel, Dutch Pieter Bruegel De Oudere, or Boeren Bruegel, Bruegel also spelled Brueghel, or Breughel the greatest Flemish painter of the 16th century, whose landscapes and vigorous, often witty scenes of peasant life are particularly renowned. He exerted a strong influence on painting in the Low Countries, and through his sons Jan and Pieter he became the ancestor of a dynasty of painters that survived into the 18th century.
There is but little information about his life. According to Carel van Mander's Het Schilderboeck (Book of Painters), published in Amsterdam in 1604 (35 years after Bruegel's death), Bruegel was apprenticed to Pieter Coecke van Aelst, a leading Antwerp artist who had located in Brussels. The head of a large workshop, Coecke was a sculptor, architect, and designer of tapestry and stained glass who had traveled in Italy and in Turkey. Although Bruegel's earliest surviving works show no stylistic dependence on Coecke's Italianate art, connections with Coecke's compositions can be detected in later years, particularly after 1563, when Bruegel married Coecke's daughter Mayken. In any case, the apprenticeship with Coecke represented an early contact with a humanistic milieu. Through Coecke, Bruegel became linked indirectly to another tradition as well. Coecke's wife, Maria Verhulst Bessemers, was a painter known for her work in watercolour or tempera, a suspension of pigments in egg yolk or a glutinous substance, on linen. The technique was widely practiced in her hometown of Mechelen (Malines) and was later employed by Bruegel. It is also in the works of Mechelen's artists that allegorical and peasant thematic material first appear. These subjects, unusual in Antwerp, were later treated by Bruegel. In 1551 or 1552, Bruegel setoff on the customary northern artist's journey to Italy, probably by way of France. From several extant paintings, drawings, and etchings, it can be deduced that he traveled beyond Naples to Sicily, possibly as far as Palermo, and that in 1553 he lived for some time in Rome, where he worked with a celebrated miniaturist, Giulio Clovio, an artist greatly influenced by Michelangelo and later a patron of the young El Greco…..
(Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
Oil on canvas, mounted on wood, c. 1558
Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels
From the Artchive

Netherlandish Proverbs
The Blue Cloak
The Topsy Turvy World
The Folly of the World
Oil on oak, 1559
Staatliche Museen (Berlin, Germany)
From the Artchive

Netherlandish Proverbs (above), also called The Blue Cloak or The Topsy Turvy World (above), is a 1559 oil-on-oak-panel painting which depicts a land populated with literal renditions of Flemish proverbs of the day. The picture is overflowing with references and most of the representations can still be identified; while many of the proverbs have either been forgotten or never made the transition to the English language, some are still in use. Proverbs were popular during Brueghel's time: a number of collections were published including a famous work by Erasmus. Frans Hogenberg had produced an engraving illustrating about 40 proverbs in around 1558 and Brueghel himself had painted a collection of Twelve Proverbs on individual panels by 1558 and had also produced Big Fish Eat Little Fish in 1556, but Netherlandish Proverbs is thought to be the first large scale painting on the theme. Rabelais depicted a land of proverbs in his novel Pantagruel soon after in 1564.
Bruegel's paintings have themes of the absurdity, wickedness and foolishness of mankind, and this painting is no exception. The picture was originally entitled The Blue Cloak or the Folly of the World which indicates he was not intending to produce a mere collection of proverbs but rather a study of human stupidity. Many of the people depicted show the characteristic blank features which Breughel used to portray fools. His son, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, specialised in making copies of his father's work, and painted up to twenty copies of Netherlandish Proverbs.
There are around 100 identifiable idioms in the scene (although Breugel may have included others). Some are still in use today, amongst them: "swimming against the tide", "big fish eat little fish", "banging one's head against a brick wall" and "armed to the teeth", and there are some that are familiar if not identical to the modern English usage, such as "casting roses before swine". Many more have faded from use or have never been used in English, "having one's roof tiled with tarts" for example which meant to have an abundance of everything and was an image Breughel would later feature in his painting of the idyllic Land of Cockaigne . The Blue Cloak referred to in the painting's original title is being placed on the man in the centre of the picture by his wife. This was indicative that she was cheating on him. Other proverbs indicate mankind's foolishness: a man fills in a pond after his calf has died, just above the central figure of the blue-cloaked man another man carries daylight in a basket. Some of the figures seem to represent more than one figure of speech (whether this was Brueghel's intention or not is unknown), such as the man shearing a sheep in the centre bottom left of the picture. He is sat next to a man shearing a pig, so represents the expression "one shears sheep and one shears pigs" meaning that one has the advantage over the other, but he may also represent the advice "shear them but don't skin them" meaning make the most of your assets.

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent
a satire of the conflicts of the Reformation
Oil on oak panel, 1559
Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Vienna
From the Artchive

Using abundant spirit and comic power, he created some of the early images of acute social protest in art history. Examples include paintings such as The Fight Between Carnival and Lent or a satire of the conflicts of the Reformation (above) and engravings like The Ass in the School and Strongboxes Battling Piggybanks. On his deathbed he reportedly ordered his wife to burn the most subversive of his drawings to protect his family from political persecution.

Children's Games
Oil on oak panel, 1560
Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Vienna
From the Artchive

Dulle Griet (Mad Meg)
Oil on panel, c. 1562
Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp
From the Artchive

The Tower of Babel
Oil on oak panel, 1563
Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Vienn
From the Artchive

The "Little" Tower of Babel
Oil on panel, c. 1563
Museum Boymans-van Beuningen
Rotterdam From the Artchive
From the Artchive

The Adoration of the Kings
Oil on canvas, 1564
The National Gallery, London
From the Artchive

The Procession to Calvary
Oil on canvas, 1564
Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Vienna
From the Artchive

The Hunters in the Snow
Oil on panel, 1565
Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Vienna
From the Artchive

Bruegel specialized in genre paintings populated by peasants, often with a large landscape element, but also painted religious works. Making the life and manners of peasants the main focus of a work was rare in painting in Brueghel's time, and he was a pioneer of the Netherlandish genre painting. 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 and a prime source of iconographic evidence about both physical and social aspects of 16th century life. For example, the painting Netherlandish Proverbs illustrates dozens of then-contemporary aphorisms (many of them still in use in current Dutch or Flemish), and Children's Games shows the variety of amusements enjoyed by young people. His winter landscapes of 1565, e.g. Hunters in the Snow (above), are taken as corroborative evidence of the severity of winters during the Little Ice Age.

Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap
Oil, 1565
Wiltshire, Wilton House
From the Artchive

In his earliest surviving works, Bruegel appears as essentially a landscape artist, indebted to, but transcending, the Flemish 16th-century landscape tradition, as well as to Titian and to other Venetian landscape painters. After his return from Italy, he turned to multifigure compositions, representations of crowds of people loosely disposed throughout the picture and usually seen from above. Here, too, antecedents can be found in the art of Hiƫronymus Bosch and of other painters closer in time to Bruegel.
In 1564 and 1565, under the spell of Italian art and especially of Raphael, Bruegel reduced the number of figures drastically, the few being larger and placed closely together in a very narrow space. In 1565, however, he turned again to landscape with the celebrated series known as “Labours of the Months.” In the five of these that have survived, he subordinated the figures to the great lines of the landscape. Later on, crowds appear again, disposed in densely concentrated groups.
Bruegel's last works often show a striking affinity with Italian art. The diagonal spatial arrangement of the figures in “Peasant Wedding” recalls Venetian compositions. Though transformed into peasants, the figures in such works as “Peasant and Bird Nester” (1568) have something of the grandeur of Michelangelo. In the very last works, two trends appear; on the one hand, a combined monumentalization and extreme simplification of figures and, on the other hand,an exploration of the expressive quality of the various moods conveyed by landscape. The former trend is evident in his “Hunters in the Snow” (1565), one of his winter paintings. The latter is seen in the radiant, sunny atmosphere of “The Magpie on the Gallows” and in the threatening and sombre character of “The Storm at Sea,” an unfinished work, probably Bruegel's last painting…..
(Encyclopaedia Britannica)

The Harvesters
Oil on wood, 1565
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
From the Artchive

The Harvesters (above) is one of six panels painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder for the suburban Antwerp home of the wealthy merchant Niclaes Jongelinck, one of the artist's most enthusiastic patrons—Jongelinck owned no less than sixteen of Bruegel's works. The series, which represented the seasons or times of the year, included six works, five of which survive. The other four are: Gloomy Day, Return of the Herd, Hunters in the Snow (all Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum), and Haymaking (Nelahozeves, Czech Republic, Roudnice Lobkowicz Collection). Through his remarkable sensitivity to nature's workings, Bruegel created a watershed in the history of Western art, suppressing the religious and iconographic associations of earlier depictions of the seasons in favor of an unidealized vision of landscape. The Harvesters probably represented the months of August and September in the context of the series. It shows a ripe field of wheat that has been partially cut and stacked, while in the foreground a number of peasants pause to picnic in the relative shade of a pear tree. Work continues around them as a couple gathers wheat into bundles, three men cut stalks with scythes, and several women make their way through the corridor of a wheat field with stacks of grain over their shoulders. The vastness of the panorama across the rest of the composition reveals that Bruegel's emphasis is not on the labors that mark the time of the year, but on the atmosphere and transformation of the landscape itself. The Seasons series continued to be cherished even after it left its original setting: by 1595, the panels, having been purchased by Antwerp, were presented as a gift to Archduke Ernst, governor of the Netherlands, on the occasion of his triumphal entry into the city. From there they entered the illustrious collection of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II at Prague.
Text from "Sister Wendy's American Masterpieces" at The Artchive:
"Bruegel is the most deceptive of the old masters; his work looks so simple, yet is infinitely profound. Five of the series remain, and in Vienna, you can view three of them on one long wall in the Kunsthistorisches Museum (which is lucky enough to own another eleven of Bruegel's paintings, representing nearly a third of his surviving works). Seeing the three in all of their majesty - each a world in itself - made me doubt Bruegel's wisdom in attempting a series. Each one is overwhelming, though it is easier to feel its impact than to explain it.
The Harvesters, is basically, I think, a visual meditation on the near and the far. The near is the harvesters themselves - painted as only Bruegel can paint. He shows us real people: the man slumped with exhaustion, or intoxication; the hungry eaters; the men finishing off their work before their noontime break. Yet he caricatures them just slightly. He sees a woman with grain-like hair, and women walking through the fields like moving grain stacks. He smiles, but he also sighs. There is not a sentimental hair on Bruegel's paintbrush, but nobody has more compassion for the harsh life of the peasant. His faces are those of people who are almost brutalized - vacant faces with little to communicate.
He sets this "near" in the wonder of the "far": the rolling world of corn and wood, of small hills spreading in sunlit glory to the misty remoteness of the harbor. Into this distance, the peasants disappear, swallowed up. They cannot see it, but we - aloft with the artist - can see it for what it is: the beautiful world in which we are privileged to live. He makes us aware not just of space, but of spaciousness - an immensely satisfying, potential earthly paradise. No other landscape artist has treated a landscape with such intellectual subtlety, yet Bruegel states nothing. He simply stirs us into receptivity."

The painter and the buyer
Pen and black ink on brown paper, c. 1565
Albertina, Vienna
From the Artchive

Peasant wedding
Oil on wood, c. 1568
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
From the Artchive

One of the most perfect of Bruegel's human comedies is his famous picture of a country wedding (above). Like most pictures, it loses a great deal in reproduction: all details become much smaller, and we must therefore look at it with double care. The feast takes place in a barn, with straw stacked up high in the background. The bride sits in front of a piece of blue cloth, with a kind of crown suspended over her head. She sits quietly, with folded hands and a grin of utter contentment on her stupid face. The old man in the chair and the woman beside her are probably her parents, while the man farther back, who is so busy gobbling his food with his spoon, may be the bridegroom. Most of the people at the table concentrate on eating and drinking, and we notice this is only the beginning. In the left-hand corner a man pours out beer - a good number of empty jugs are still in the basket - while two men with white aprons are carrying ten more platefuls of pie or porridge on an improvised tray. One of the guests passes the plates to the table. But much more is going on. There is the crowd in the background trying to get in; there are the musicians, one of them with a pathetic, forlorn and hungry look in his eyes, as he watches the food being carried past; there are the two outsiders at the corner of the table, the friar and the magistrate, engrossed in their own conversation; and there is the child in the foreground, who has got hold of a plate, and a feathered cap much too large for its little head, and who is completely absorbed in licking the delicious food - a picture of innocent greed. But what is even more admirable than all this wealth of anecdote, wit and observation, is the way in which Bruegel has organized his picture so that it does not look crowded or confusing. Tintoretto himself could not have produced a more convincing picture of a crowded space than did Bruegel with his device of the table receding into the background and the movement of people starting with the crowd at the barn door, leading up to the foreground and the scene of the food carriers, and back again through the gesture of the man serving the table who leads our eyes directly to the small but central figure of the grinning bride.
(The Artchive)

The Peasant Dance
Oil on oak panel, 1568
Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Vienna
From the Artchive

In September 1569 Bruegel died, and was buried in Notre Dame de la Chapelle, Brussels; in 1578 died Mayken Bruegel, the orphaned children were brought up by their grandmother. The surviving pictures of Bruegel are few in number – under fifty. “Although Bruegel was famous in his own lifetime, the archaic tone of much of his imagery and his refusal to adopt the idealized figure style evolved by Italian Renaissance artists had, in sophisticated circles, an adverse effect on his reputation both during his life and after his death” (Keith Roberts). Bruegel’s works did not agree with current aesthetic theories of his time, but they wonderfully match to the tastes of our contemporaries.
(Olga’s gallery)

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