Pieter Bruegel I (ca. 1525–1569), commonly known as Pieter Bruegel the Elder, was the greatest member of a large and important southern Netherlandish family of artists active for four generations in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A longtime resident of Antwerp, the center of publishing in the Netherlands and a vibrant commercial capital, Bruegel brought a humanizing spirit to traditional subjects and boldly created new ones. He was an astoundingly inventive painter and draftsman, and, due to the continuity of the family trade and the industry that developed in prints after his works, Bruegel’s impact was widespread and long lasting. Born in or near Breda about 1525, Bruegel settled fairly early in Antwerp, where he became a master in the painters’ Guild of Saint Luke between 1551 and 1552. After a trip to Italy, he began a long-standing association with Hieronymus Cock, whose Antwerp publishing house, At the Four Winds, produced prints on a range of subjects, from parables to landscapes. Between 1555 and 1563, Bruegel made over forty designs for engravings, capitalizing on the strong market demand for images in the style or manner of Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1450–1516). Bruegel’s Big Fish Eat Little Fish (Albertina, Vienna) was even attributed to Bosch in Cock’s print, though all subsequent engravings were inscribed “Bruegel inventor.” The novel and ingenious way in which Bruegel translated moralizing subjects into vernacular language is most apparent in his original drawings and paintings, such as Netherlandish Proverbs (Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin), which depicts over 100 proverbs in the familiar setting of a Flemish village; it became one of the artist’s most popular images—at least sixteen copies of the painting are known. In religious or mythological depictions, such as the Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels), Bruegel expanded the viewers perspective to make the titular action but one part of a startlingly broad vision of the natural and cultivated world.
A number of Bruegel’s paintings focus on the lives of Flemish commoners, which earned him the nickname “peasant Bruegel,” as well as the misguided reputation for being of peasant birth. In Kermis (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) and The Dirty Bride (32.63), for instance, Bruegel depicts the boisterous activities of a country fair and a folk play, respectively, paying particularly close attention to the worn costumes and broad, emphatic gestures of the celebrants. But while these works demonstrate the artist’s attentive eye for detail and attest to his direct observation of village settings, they are far from simple re-creations of everyday life. The powerful compositions, brilliantly organized and controlled, reflect a sophisticated artistic design. Bruegel was, in fact, patronized mainly by scholars, wealthy businessmen, and connoisseurs, and was on friendly terms with some of the most prominent humanists of the Netherlands, including the cartographer Abraham Ortelius and the publisher Christoph Plantin. The ongoing debate over the interpretation of Bruegel’s “peasant” images underscores the complexity and originality of his conception.
Bruegel’s use of landscape also defies easy interpretation, and demonstrates perhaps the artist’s greatest innovation. Working in the aftermath of the Reformation, Bruegel was able to separate his landscapes from long-standing iconographic tradition, and achieve a contemporary and palpable vision of the natural world. For the Antwerp home of the wealthy merchant Niclaes Jongelinck, who owned no less than sixteen of the artist’s works, Bruegel executed a series of paintings representing the Seasons, of which five survive: Gloomy Day, Return of the Herd, Hunters in the Snow (all Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), Haymaking (Národní Galerie, Prague), and The Harvesters (19.164). Though rooted in the legacy of calendar scenes, Bruegel’s emphasis is not on the labors that mark each season but on the atmosphere and transformation of the landscape itself. These panoramic compositions suggest an insightful and universal vision of the world—a vision that distinguishes all the work of their remarkable creator, Pieter Bruegel the Elder.