Pieter Bruegel

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (also Brueghel or Breughel) (c.1525–1530 – 9 September 1569) the greatest Flemish painter of the 16th century, whose landscapes and vigorous, often witty scenes of peasant life are particularly renowned. Since Bruegel signed and dated many of his works, his artistic evolution can be traced from the early landscapes, in which he shows affinity with the Flemish 16th-century landscape tradition, to his last works, which are Italianate. 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. 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.

In 1551 or 1552 Bruegel set off 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 Buonarroti and later a patron of the young El Greco. It was in Rome in 1553 that Bruegel produced his earliest signed and dated painting, Landscape with Christ and the Apostles at the Sea of Tiberias. The holy figures in this painting were probably done by Maarten de Vos, a painter from Antwerp then working in Italy.

The earliest surviving works, including two drawings with Italian scenery sketched on the southward journey and dated 1552, are landscapes. A number of drawings of Alpine regions, produced between 1553 and 1556, indicate the great impact of the mountain experience on this man from the Low Countries. With the possible exception of a drawing of a mountain valley by Leonardo da Vinci, the landscapes resulting from this journey are almost without parallel in European art for their rendering of the overpowering grandeur of the high mountains.

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.

From 1555 until 1563, Bruegel lived in Antwerp, then the publishing centre of northern Europe, mainly working as a designer of over forty 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 married Pieter Coecke van Aelst’s daughter Mayken Coecke in Brussels, where he lived for the remainder of his short 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.

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 characteristic 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 Netherlandish 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. The Flemish environment provided a large artistic audience for proverb-filled paintings because proverbs were well known and recognizable as well as entertaining. Children’s Games shows the variety of amusements enjoyed by young people. His winter landscapes of 1565, like The Hunters in the Snow, are taken as corroborative evidence of the severity of winters during the Little Ice Age. Bruegel often painted community events, 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.

Bruegel also painted religious scenes in a wide Flemish landscape setting, as in the Conversion of Paul and The Sermon of St. John the Baptist. Even if Bruegel’s subject matter was unconventional, the religious ideals and proverbs driving his paintings were typical of the Northern Renaissance. He accurately depicted people with disabilities, such as in The Blind Leading the Blind, which 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.

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