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Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Virtual Tour

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Virtual Tour

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525 – 1569) was the most significant Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painting artist. He is a painter known for his landscapes and peasant scenes.

He significantly influenced the Dutch Golden Age painting with his innovative choices of the subject matter. He was one of the first generations 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 artistic 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 Virtual Tour of Pieter Bruegel, the Elder

Highlights Tour of Pieter Bruegel, the Elder

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 strata of humanity from peasants and soldiers to nobles as well as a king and a cardinal.

The “Triumph of Death is overtaking all.” 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 that has long gone.

The overall impression is one of a cold and overcast winter’s day. The colors 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 catalog 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

The Wedding Dance

“The Wedding Dance” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, depicts wedding guests at a village wedding at the time of the Renaissance. As was customary at that time, the bride is wearing black, and men are wearing prominent codpieces.

Dancing was disapproved of by the authorities and the church, so this painting can be seen as either an entertaining depiction of the overindulgent peasant enjoying an opportunity to celebrate and indulge or as a moralizing tale.

The wedding guests wearing clothing from the times, presented in an outdoor party surrounded by trees. In the middle of the composition is the bride with a black dress and red hair dancing with her father’s older man. 

In the background, to the right, is hanging a tablecloth decorated with a crown, and beneath it is the bride’s table. The pipers are playing the bagpipes in the foreground to the right. Museum:  Detroit Institute of Arts

The Peasant Wedding

“The Peasant Wedding” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder depicts the bride in front of the green textile wall-hanging, with a paper-crown hung above her head. She is also wearing a crown on her head, but the Bridegroom is not identified, and his representation is uncertain.

There has been much conjecture as to the identity of the groom in this painting. He may be the man in the center of the painting, wearing a dark coat and seen in profile. Or is he against the far wall, to the right of the bride, eating with a spoon?

It has also been suggested that according to contemporary customs, the groom is not be seated at the table but serving the food or drink instead. According to another theory, the groom may not attend the wedding feast per Flemish custom.

The feast is in a barn with two sheaves of grain with a rake, symbolize the harvest and the peasant’s agricultural life. Museum: Kunsthistorisches Museum

The Peasant Dance

“The Peasant Dance” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder depicts the country fair’s opening dance, which involved a traditional leaping dance initiated by pairs of couples that preceded the general dance.

The foreground pair rushes in to become one of the couples that initiate the general dance as the bagpipe player starts the music. The running and jumping steps of the village-square dance would be in contrast to the formal dances performed at court.

This oil on panel painting is not signed nor dated but was painted in 1567, at the same time as “The Peasant Wedding.” The paintings are the same size and are part of a series illustrating peasant life

As in “The Peasant Wedding” and “The Wedding Dance,”  Bruegel intended his paintings to have a moral message rather than simply being an entertaining portrayal of peasant life. Gluttony, lust, and promiscuity can all be identified in this picture. 

Museum: Kunsthistorisches Museum

Pieter Bruegel, the Elder

  • Name:         Pieter Bruegel the Elder
  • Birth:           1525-1530 – Breda, Duchy of Brabant, Habsburg Netherlands
  • Died:           1569 (aged 39 – 44) – Brussels, Duchy of Brabant, Habsburg Netherlands
  • Movement: Dutch and Flemish Renaissance
  • Notable Works:

Pieter Bruegel the Elder: A collection of 42 paintings

A Tour of Artists and their Art

The world of Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Pieter Bruegel (Brueghel) the Elder

Pieter Bruegel – A Sublime Artist and a Master Story-Teller

~~~

“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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