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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Pieter Bruegel (also Brueghel) the Elder (1525 – 1569) was the most significant artist of Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painting, a painter known for his landscapes and peasant scenes. He influenced the Dutch Golden Age painting with 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 dominant subject matter of painting.

All his most famous paintings come from the decade before his early death, when he was in his early forties, and at the height of his powers. He dropped the ‘h’ from his name and signed his paintings as Bruegel, and 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).

A Tour of Pieter Bruegel, the Elder’s Art

  • Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
    • “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by Pieter Brueghel, the Elder was long thought to be painted by Pieter Bruegel, the Elder, however, following recent technical examinations it is now regarded as an excellent early copy by an unknown artist of Bruegel’s lost original. In Greek mythology, Icarus who succeeded in flying, with wings made by his father, using feathers and beeswax. Unfortunately, Icarus ignored his father’s warnings, and he flew too close to the sun, melting the wax, and he fell into the sea and drowned. His legs can be seen in the water at the bottom right. Museum: Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium
  • The Tower of Babel
    • “The Tower of Babel” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder depicts the construction of the Tower of Babel. Bruegel’s depiction of the architecture of the tower, with its numerous arches and examples of Roman engineering, is reminiscent of a larger and taller Roman Colosseum. Bruegel had visited Rome in 1552–1553 and had studied the Roman ruins. At first glance the tower appears to be a stable series of concentric pillars; however, none of the layers lies at a true horizontal, the tower is built as an ascending spiral. Museum: Kunsthistorisches Museum
  • Massacre of the Innocents
    • “Massacre of the Innocents” by Pieter Bruegel, the Elder, depicts the story from St Matthew’s Gospel when King Herod ordered the death of all children in Bethlehem under the age of two. Herod made this command after hearing from the wise men of the birth of Jesus. Bruegel re-imagined the scene into a 16th-century Netherlandish village, where Spanish soldiers and German mercenaries attack the Flemish villagers. This depiction served as a commentary on the occupying Spanish led troops in the prelude to the Dutch Revolt against Spanish rule, also known as the Eighty Years’ War. Museum: Queen’s Gallery and the Royal Collection
  • The Triumph of Death
    • “The Triumph of Death” by Pieter Bruegel, the Elder depicts an army of skeletons wreaking havoc across a burnt and burning desolate landscape. Fires burn in the distance, and there are shipwrecks in the sea. In this scorched and barren landscape, the skeletons massacre the living, who seem to be surrounded. People are herded into a coffin-shaped trap decorated with crosses, while a skeleton on horseback is killing people with a scythe. The painting depicts all of humanity from peasants and soldiers to nobles as well as a king and a cardinal being overtaken by the “Triumph of Death”. The scene is this painting is full of sub-stories of human vanity and our inability to escape death. Museum:  Prado Museum, Museo del Prado
  • The Harvesters
    • “The Harvesters” by Pieter Bruegel, the Elder depicts the harvest time which most commonly occurred within August and September. This painting is one in a series of six works that represent different times of the year. As in many of Bruegel’s paintings, the focus is on peasants and their work. Bruegel shows some of the peasants eating while others are harvesting wheat; this was done to illustrate both the production and consumption of food. The painting shows the activities representative of the 16th-century Belgian rural life during the harvest period. Numerous details have been carefully added to create a sense of distance; these include the workers carrying wheat through the clearing and the ships far away. Museum: Metropolitan Museum of Art – MET
  • Children’s Games
    • “Children’s Games” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder depicts children, who range in age from toddlers to adolescents, who in some cases look like miniature adults, playing games. The games include roll hoops, walk on stilts, spin hoops, ride hobby-horses, mock stage tournaments, play leap-frog and blind man’s bluff, do handstands and play with toys. They have also taken over the sizeable civic building that dominates the square, and in the top left-hand corner, children are bathing in the river and playing on its banks. Bruegel’s intention for this work was not just to compile an illustrated collection of children’s games, and his moral message was that for God, children’s games have as much significance as the activities of their parents. This idea was a familiar one in a contemporary poem published in Antwerp in 1530 in which humanity is compared to children who are entirely absorbed in their games and concerns. Museum: Kunsthistorisches Museum
  • The Hunters in the Snow
    • “The Hunters in the Snow” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder shows a wintry scene in which three hunters are returning from their hunt accompanied by their dogs. The expedition does not appear to have been successful as the hunters seem to trudge through the snow with their heads bowed. The dogs similarly appear downtrodden and miserable. One man carries the small corpse of a fox, to highlight the scarcity of the hunt. In front of one of the hunters in the snow are the footprints of a rabbit which has long gone. The overall impression is one of a cold and overcast winter’s day. The colours are muted whites, browns and greys, the trees are bare of leaves, and wood smoke hangs in the air. On the left, several adults and a child are preparing food at an inn with an outside fire. The landscape consists of a flat-bottomed valley with a river meandering through it and with jagged peaks visible on the far side. On the bottom right, the watermill has its wheel frozen. In the midground, figures are ice skating and playing games. Museum: Kunsthistorisches Museum
  • Netherlandish Proverbs
    • “Netherlandish Proverbs” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder also called Dutch Proverbs, depicts a scene in which humans and, to a lesser extent, animals and objects, offer illustrated examples of Dutch proverbs and idioms. This painting is consistent with the common themes in Bruegel’s paintings on the absurdity, wickedness and foolishness of humans. This painting is a catalogue of human folly and the people depicted show the characteristic blank features that Bruegel used to portray fools. Proverbs were very popular in Bruegel’s time, and a hundred years before Bruegel’s painting, illustrations of proverbs had been first used in the Flemish “Books of Hours”. The book of hours was a Christian devotional book that was popular in the Middle Ages. Museum:  Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

Pieter Bruegel, the Elder

A Tour of Artists and their Art

Reflections

  • “Things used to be that way, now they’re this way, and who knows what they will be like later.”

~~~

“Things used to be that way,
now they’re this way,
and who knows what they will be like later.”

– Belgian Proverbs.

~~~


Photo Credits: 1) Pieter Brueghel the Elder [Public domain]

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