Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The Painter and The Connoisseur, c. 1565 is thought to be Bruegel's self-portrait.
Born Pieter I Brueghel
c. 1525
Breda or Breugel, Duchy of Brabant, Habsburg Netherlands
(modern-day Netherlands)
Died 9 September 1569 (aged 43 or 44)
Brussels, Duchy of Brabant, Habsburg Netherlands
(modern-day Belgium)
Known for Painting, printmaking
Notable work The Blind Leading the Blind, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, The Hunters in the Snow, The Peasant Wedding
Movement Dutch and Flemish Renaissance

Pieter Bruegel (also Brueghel) the Elder (Dutch: [ˈpitər ˈbrøːɣəl]; c. 1525 – 9 September 1569) was a Netherlandish Renaissance painter and printmaker from Brabant, known for his landscapes and peasant scenes (so called genre painting). He is sometimes referred to as the "Peasant Bruegel". From 1559, he dropped the 'h' from his name and signed his paintings as Bruegel.


Two early sources for Bruegel's biography are Lodovico Guicciardini's account of the Low Countries and Karel van Mander's 1604 Schilder-boeck.[1] Guicciardini recorded that Bruegel was born in Breda, but van Mander specified Bruegel was born in a "village near Breda", i.e. the (now Dutch) town of Breugel. From the fact that Bruegel entered the Antwerp painters' guild in 1551, it is inferred that he was born between 1525 and 1530. His master, according to van Mander, was the Antwerp painter Pieter Coecke van Aelst, whose daughter Maria (called 'Mayken') Bruegel married in 1563. So he was between 1545 and 1550 a pupil of Pieter Coecke. Pieter Coecke died on 6 December 1550. In 1551 Bruegel became a free master in the Guild of Saint Luke of Antwerp. In 1552 Bruegel was assigned to paint the rear of two wings of a triptych in Mechelen; the middle panel was painted by Pieter Balten. Bruegel got this work probably via the connections of Mayken Verhulst, the widow of Pieter Coecke. Mayken's father and eight siblings were all artists or married an artist and lived in Mechelen . Between 1552 and 1553 Bruegel traveled to Italy, probably by way of France. He visited Rome, where he met the miniaturist Giulio Clovio, whose will of 1578 lists three paintings by Bruegel. These works, apparently landscapes, have not survived. About 1555 Bruegel returned to Antwerp by way of the Alps, which resulted in a number of exquisite drawings of mountain landscapes. These sketches, which form the basis for many of his later paintings, are not records of actual places but "composites" made in order to investigate the organic life of forms in nature.[2]

He received the nickname "Peasant Bruegel" or "Bruegel the Peasant" for his practice of dressing up like a peasant in order to socialize at weddings and other celebrations, thereby gaining inspiration and authentic details for his genre paintings. He died in Brussels on 9 September 1569 and was buried in the Kapellekerk.

Historical background

Bruegel was born at a time of extensive change in Western Europe. Humanist ideals from the previous century influenced artists and scholars in Europe. Italy was at the end of their High Renaissance of arts and culture, when artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci painted their masterpieces. In 1517, about eight years before Bruegel's birth, Martin Luther created his Ninety-Five Theses and began the Protestant Reformation in neighboring Germany. Reformation was accompanied by iconoclasm, and widespread destruction of art, including in Low Countries. In response the Catholic Church which viewed Protestantism and its iconoclasm as a threat to the church, at the Council of Trent, which concluded in 1563, determined that religious art should be more focused on religious subject-matter, and less on material things and decorative qualities.

At this time, the Low Countries was divided into Seventeen Provinces, some of which wanted separation from the Habsburg rule based in Spain. The Reformation meanwhile produced a number of Protestant denominations, which gained followers in the Seventeen Provinces, influenced by the newly Lutheran German states to the east and the newly Anglican England to the west. The Habsburg monarchs of Spain attempted a policy of strict religious uniformity for the Catholic Church within their domains, and enforced it with the Inquisition. Increasing religious antagonisms and riots, political manoeuvrings, and executions, eventually resulted in the outbreak of Eighty Years' War.

This was the atmosphere in which Bruegel reached the height of his career as a painter. Two years before Bruegel's death, the Eighty Years' War began between the United Provinces and Spain. Although Bruegel did not live to see it, seven provinces became independent and formed The Dutch Republic, while the other ten remained under Habsburg control at the end of the war.[3]


The Seven Deadly Sins or the Seven Vices - Anger, 1558

Pieter Bruegel specialized in genre paintings populated by peasants, often with a landscape element, but he also painted religious works. Making the life and manners of peasants the main focus of a work was rare in painting in Bruegel's time, and he was a pioneer of the 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, though still characteristically 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 Flemish 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, and Children's Games shows the variety of amusements enjoyed by young people. His winter landscapes of 1565 (e.g. The Hunters in the Snow) are taken as corroborative evidence of the severity of winters during the Little Ice Age.

Using abundant spirit and comic power, he created some of the very early images of acute social protest in art history. Examples include paintings such as The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (a satire of the conflicts of the Protestant Reformation) and engravings like The Ass in the School and Strongboxes Battling Piggybanks.[4] On his deathbed, he reportedly ordered his wife to burn the most subversive of his drawings to protect his family from political persecution resulting from conflicts between the Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformation.

The sins and virtues

During the late 1550s in Antwerp, Bruegel designed engravings for the leading publisher of the city, Hieronymus Cock, at the House of the Four Winds. He achieved the greatest success with a series of allegories: The Seven Deadly Sins and The Virtues. It is easy to see his compatriot Hieronymus Bosch's influence in these engravings: the sinners are grotesque and unidentifiable while the allegories of virtue often wear odd headgear.[5]


The Peasant Wedding, 1566–69, oil on panel

By 1558, Bruegel began painting more than drawing or carving. He primarily painted religious scenes in a Belgian setting, such as in his paintings, Conversion of Paul and The Sermon of St. John the Baptist. In the 1560s, Bruegel began painting the ordinary life of peasants. Often Bruegel painted a community event, 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.

Although Bruegel often painted scenes of carousing and community gatherings, he often accurately depicted cripples or people with disabilities. Perhaps one of Bruegel's most famous paintings was The Blind Leading the Blind. Not only was Bruegel's subject matter unusual, but it also 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.

Netherlandish Proverbs, 1559, oil on oak wood

Even if Bruegel's subject matter was unconventional, the religious ideals and proverbs driving his paintings were typical of the Northern Renaissance. The Flemish environment provided a large artistic audience for proverb-filled paintings because proverbs were well known and recognizable as well as entertaining. One of Bruegel's most famous paintings remains his Netherlandish Proverbs, painted in 1559. The majority of Bruegel's paintings have many different actions occurring at once, but this painting, with over 110 proverbs, must have been one of his most symbolically laden paintings.[6]

Months of the year

The Hunters in the Snow, 1565, oil on wood

Paintings of proverbs were not Bruegel's only subjects. In 1565, a wealthy patron in Antwerp, Niclaes Jonghelinck, commissioned him to paint a series of paintings of each month of the year. There has been disagreement among art historians as to whether the series originally included six or twelve works.[7] Today, only five of these paintings survive and some of the months are paired to form a general season. Traditional Flemish books of hours (e.g., the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry;[8] 1416) had calendar pages that included depictions of what the social life, the weather, and the landscape supposedly would have looked like for that month.

Bruegel's paintings were on a larger scale than a typical calendar page painting, each one approximately three feet by five feet. For Bruegel, this was a large commission (the size of a commission was based on how large the painting was) and an important one. In 1565, the Calvinist riots began and it was only two years before the Eighty Years' War broke out. Bruegel may have felt safer with a secular commission so as to not offend Calvinist or Catholic.[9] Some of the most famous paintings from this series included The Hunters in the Snow (December–January) and The Harvesters (August).


Pieter the Elder had two sons: Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Jan Brueghel the Elder (both changed their name to Brueghel). Their grandmother, Mayken Verhulst, trained the sons because "the Elder" died when both were very small children. The older brother, Pieter Brueghel, was not the better painter of the two; he copied his father's style but without any degree of great talent. Jan was more successful; he turned to the Baroque style and even collaborated with Peter Paul Rubens on the Allegory of Sight.[10]

Other members of the family include Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Mayken Verhulst (father-in-law and mother-in-law to Pieter Bruegel the Elder), Jan van Kessel the Elder (grandson of Jan Bruegel the Elder) and Jan van Kessel the Younger. Through David Teniers, the family is also related to the whole Teniers family of painters and the Quellinus family of painters and sculptors, since Jan-Erasmus Quellinus married Cornelia, daughter of David Teniers the Younger.

Work referenced in others' work

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c. 1558, oil on canvas mounted on wood

His painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is the subject of the 1938 poem "Musée des Beaux Arts" by W. H. Auden:

In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.[1]

  1. ^ Foote, Timothy (1986). The World of Bruegel. Time-Life Library. p. 149. 

It also was the subject of a 1960 poem by William Carlos Williams and was referenced in Nicolas Roeg's 1976 science fiction film The Man Who Fell to Earth. Further, Williams' final collection of poetry references a number of Bruegel's work.

Two Monkeys, 1562, oil on panel

Bruegel's painting Two Monkeys was the subject of Wisława Szymborska 1957 poem, "Brueghel's Two Monkeys".[11]

Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky referenced Bruegel's paintings in his films several times, notably Solaris (1972) and The Mirror (1975).

Director Lars von Trier also uses Bruegel's paintings in his film Melancholia (2011). This was used as a reference to Tarkovsky's Solaris, a movie with related themes.

His 1564 painting The Procession to Calvary inspired the 2011 Polish-Swedish film co-production The Mill and the Cross, in which Bruegel is played by Rutger Hauer.

Bruegel's paintings in the Kunsthistorisches Museum are shown in the 2012 film, Museum Hours, where his work is discussed at length by a guide.

It is believed that his painting The Hunters in the Snow influenced the classic short story with the same title written by Tobias Wolff and featured in In the Garden of the North American Martyrs.

Seamus Heaney referenced Brueghel in his poem "The Seed Cutters".[12]

David Jones references the painting The Blind Leading the Blind in his World War One prose-poem In Parenthesis: 'the stumbling dark of the blind, that Breughel knew about - ditch circumscribed'.

Michael Frayn, in his novel Headlong, invents a lost panel from the 1565 Months series, which triggers a mad conflict between an art (and money) lover and the boor who possesses it. Much thought is spent on Bruegel's secret motives for painting it.

In his book American Barricade, Danniel Schoonebeek references several Brueghel paintings in his poem "Poem for a Seven-Hour Flight," notably in the lines: "I am the hounds in Brueghel / do you know the hounds // here is the single fox I have killed will you wear it around your shoulders are you ashamed."

American Author Don Delillo references Bruegel's painting The Triumph of Death in his novel 'Underworld and his short story "Pafko at the Wall".


There are about 45 authenticated surviving paintings, one third of which are in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. A number of others are known to have been lost. There are a large number of drawings. Brueghel only etched one plate himself, The Rabbit Hunt, but designed many engravings and etchings, mostly for the Cock publishing house.

Selected works

There are about 45 authenticated surviving paintings, one third of which are in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. A number of others are known to have been lost. There are a large number of drawings. Bruegel only etched one plate himself, The Rabbit Hunt, but designed many engravings and etchings, mostly for the Hieronymus Cock publishing house.


See also


  1. van Mander's Bruegel biography in Dutch
  2. http://www.pieter-bruegel-the-elder.org/biography.html
  3. Foote, Timothy (1968). The World of Bruegel. Library of Congress: Time-Life Library of Art. pp. 18–27.
  4. Mayor, A. Hyatt (1971). Prints & People: A Social History of Printed Pictures. Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 426.
  5. Foote, Timothy (1968). The World of Bruegel. Library of Congress: Time-Life Library.
  6. Stokstad, Cothren, Marilyn, Michael (2010). Art History- Fourteenth to Seventeenth Century Art.
  7. Gibson, Walter S. (1977) . Bruegel. The World of Art Library. Thames and Hudson pp 147–148.
  8. Stokstad, Cothren, Marilyn, Michael (2010). Art History- Fourteenth to Seventeenth Century Art.
  9. Foote, Timothy (1968). The World of Bruegel. Library of Congress: Time-Life Library.
  10. "Pieter Bruegel, the Elder". World History in Context. Encyclopedia of World Biography.
  11. Szymborska, Wislawa (1995). View With a Grain of Sand. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 3.
  12. Heaney, Seamus. Opened Ground: Poems 1966–1996. Faber & Faber. p. 60. ISBN 978-0-571-26279-3.
  13. Lobkowicz Collections website
  14. Masterpieces of the Brukenthal Collection
  15. (Het journaal 1–11/11/09). "deredactie.be". Vrtnieuws.net. Archived from the original on 19 October 2007. Retrieved 12 November 2009.
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