(born c. 1525, probably Breda, duchy of Brabant —
died Sept. 5/9, 1569, Brussels) Greatest Netherlandish painter of the
16th century. Not much is known of his early life, but in 1551 he set
off for Italy, where he produced his earliest signed painting, Landscape
with Christ and the Apostles at the Sea of Tiberias (c.
1553). Returning to Flanders in 1555, he achieved some fame with a
series of satirical, moralizing prints in the style of Hiëronymus
Bosch, commissioned by an Antwerp engraver. He is best known for
his paintings of Netherlandish proverbs, seasonal landscapes, and
realistic views of peasant life and folklore, but he also took a novel
approach to religious subject matter, portraying biblical events in
panoramic scenes, often viewed from above. He had many important
patrons; most of his paintings were commissioned by collectors. In
addition to many drawings and engravings, about 40 authenticated
paintings from his enormous output have survived. His sons, Peter
Brueghel the Younger and Jan,
the Elder Brueghel (both of whom restored to the name the h
their father had abandoned), and later imitators carried his style into
the 18th century.
For more information on Pieter Bruegel, the Elder, visit Britannica.com.
Bruegel, Brueghel, or Breughel (all: broi'gəl,
Du. brö'gəl), outstanding family of Flemish genre
and landscape painters. The foremost, Pieter Bruegel,
the Elder, c.1525-1569, called Peasant Bruegel, studied in Antwerp with
his future father-in-law, Pieter Coeck van Aelst, but was influenced
primarily by Bosch.
In 1551 he became a member of the Antwerp Guild. Bruegel visited Italy
in the early 1550s. He remained close, however, to the Flemish tradition
and employed his native powers of minute observation in depicting the
whole living world of field and forest and of sturdy peasants at work
and play. He was, himself, a learned city-dweller and friend of
humanists. His paintings of genre subjects have allegorical or
moralizing significance. In his tremendous range of invention, Bruegel
approached Bosch in creating nightmarish fantasies in such works as The
Fall of the Rebel Angels (Brussels). He also painted cheerful,
acutely perceived scenes of daily life, e.g., Peasant Wedding
(Vienna), for which he is best known. In the Fall of Icarus
(versions in Brussels and New York), his only mythological subject, the
title character is reduced to a tiny figure barely noticeable in a large
Bruegel's range of subjects includes religious
histories-Numbering at Bethlehem (Brussels), Way to Calvary
(Vienna), with figures clothed in contemporary Flemish dress; parables-The
Sower (Antwerp), The Blind Leading the Blind (Naples); genre
scenes-Children's Games, Peasant Dance (both: Vienna);
landscapes showing the activities of the months-(several in Vienna, Harvesters
in the Metropolitan Mus.); and other works. A skilled draftsman and
etcher, he used a delicate line to define his figures. His people are
stubby in proportion, but lively and solid. His color is remarkably
sensitive, as is his feeling for landscape. His compositions are often
based on diagonal lines and S-curves, creating gentle rhythms and
allowing planes of landscape to unfold into the distance.
See studies by L. Münz (1961), W.
Stechow (1971), F. Grossmann (3d ed. 1973), and N. M. Orenstein, ed.
His son, Pieter Bruegel, the
Younger, 1564-1637, often copied his father's works. Two of his
paintings are in the Metropolitan Museum. His brother, Jan
Bruegel, 1568-1625, called Velvet Bruegel, specialized in still
life, rendered with extreme smoothness and finesse. He was a friend of
Rubens, and occasionally supplied floral ornaments for works from
Rubens's shop. He was also adept at landscape. Representative works are
in Brussels and Berlin.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569) was a
Netherlandish painter and designer for engravings. His works provide a
profound and elemental insight into man and his relationship to the
world of nature.
Pieter Bruegel lived at a time when
northern art was strongly influenced by Italian mannerism, but despite
journey to Italy for purposes of study, he was astonishingly
independent of the dominant artistic interests of his day. Instead, he
deliberately revived the late Gothic style of Hieronymus Bosch as the
point of departure for his own highly complex and original art.
major source of information concerning Bruegel is the Dutch biographer
Karel van Mander, who wrote in 1604. This near-contemporary of the
painter claims that Bruegel was born in a town of the same name near
Breda on the modern Dutch-Belgian border. Most recent authorities,
however, follow the Italian writer Guicciardini in designating the
painter's birthplace as Breda itself.
From the fact that Bruegel
entered the Antwerp painters' guild in 1551, we may infer
that he was born between 1525 and 1530. His master, according to Van
Mander, was the Antwerp painter Pieter Coecke van Aelst, whose daughter
Bruegel married in 1563. Between 1552 and 1553 Bruegel went 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, which apparently were landscapes, have not survived.
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
Early Antwerp Style
In 1556 Bruegel
entered the house of the Antwerp publisher Hieronymus Cock as a designer
for engravings. His pen drawing of that year entitled Big Fish Eat
Little Fish was published in 1557 as an engraving
by Cock, who substituted Bosch's
name for Bruegel's in order to exploit the fashion for Bosch's works
then current at Antwerp. The series Seven Deadly Sins, engraved
in 1558, however, carries the artist's own signature, a sign of
Bruegel's increasing importance. In these works Bruegel, unlike any of
his Antwerp contemporaries, achieved a truly creative synthesis of
Bosch's demonic symbolism with his own personal vision of human folly
Despite efforts to dismiss these engravings as "fascinating
drolleries," there is evidence to suggest that Bruegel was attempting
to substitute a new and more relevant eschatology
for Bosch's traditional view of the Christian cosmos.
Bruegel's earliest signed and dated painting, the Combat of Carnival
and Lent (1559), the influence of Bosch is still strongly felt. The
high-horizoned landscape, the decorative surface patterning, and many of
the iconographic details derive from the earlier Dutch master. There
is, however, a new sensitivity to color, particularly in the use of
bright, primary hues, and a rhythmic organization of forms that is
uniquely Bruegel's. This painting, the Netherlandish Proverbs
(1559), and the highly involved Children's Games (1560) form the
body of the early "encyclopedic"
works which, despite their superficial gaiety,
have been shown to be allegories of a foolish
and sinful world.
Also related in conception to the encyclopedic
paintings are Bruegel's two most phantasmagoric
works: the Dulle Griet and the Triumph of Death (both
probably executed in 1562). The Dulle Griet is still related to
Bosch stylistically, but unlike the works of that painter it is not
intended so much as a moral sermon against the depravity of the world as
a recognition of the existence of evil in it. This capacity to see evil
from the human condition carries over into the Triumph of Death,
which has also been interpreted as a reference to the outbreak at that
time of religious persecutions in the Netherlands.
The last of
Bruegel's great "figurative anthologies" is the Tower of Babel
(1563). Intended to symbolize the futility
of human ambition and perhaps more specifically to criticize the spirit
of commercialism then reigning in Antwerp, the panel also contains a
vista of a vast world. Only distantly related to Bosch's cosmic
landscapes, this new world view was to inform most of the artist's
reasons for leaving Antwerp, Bruegel took up residence in Brussels in
1563, where he was to remain until his death in 1569. His reputation as
one of the greatest of all Netherlandish
painters is mainly founded upon the works of this brief but highly
The Road to Calvary (1564) inaugurates
this phase, in which man is increasingly subordinated to the rhythms and
patterns of nature. A lower horizon and a new feeling for atmospheric
perspective are important stylistic features of this panel, which is one
of the few surviving religious works in Bruegel's oeuvre.
1565 Bruegel was commissioned to execute a series of pictures of the
months for Niclaes Jonghelinck of Antwerp. Based upon the medieval idea
of the labors of the seasons as seen, for example, in cathedral
sculpture or the illuminations of late Gothic books of hours, Bruegel's
series represents a magnificient culmination of this tradition. Of the
original group, five paintings have survived. De Tolnay (1935) has very plausibly
suggested that each panel portrayed the activities of 2 months, so that
only the painting for April and May is lost.
In these beautifully
conceived and executed panels Bruegel has achieved a moment of
resolution of the previously existing duality
between man and nature. The central theme of the cycle is that man, if
he follows the order of nature, can avoid the folly for which he is
otherwise destined. The role of mankind is portrayed by peasants -
anonymous symbols of humanity - who live and work close to the soil in a
state of beneficent
unity with nature.
The months of December and January are
represented by the Hunters in the Snow. A work of great
compositional unity, it demonstrates that the activities of men, in
order to be good, must conform to the seasonal patterns of nature.
Dark Day and the Hay Harvest depict the labors of
February-March and June-July respectively. In both panels broad
panoramic landscapes dominate visually as well as in terms of content
the affairs of men, which once again accord with the will of nature.
months of August and September are portrayed by the golden-hued Wheat
Harvest, one of the most lyrical panels in the series. Here Bruegel
achieves a greater degree of spatial and figural integration than in
the previous paintings, as well as heightened atmospheric effects.
most brilliant panel in the series is the Return of the Herd,
which represents October and November. A magnificent composition,
organized along a sequence of intersecting diagonal movements, this
painting evokes with unparalleled
actuality the scope and grandeur
of the natural world.
Through the striking beauty and originality
of these seasonal pictures Bruegel enunciated a new coherency in man's
relationship to the natural scheme. Casting off the established order
and hierarchy of the medieval and Renaissance cosmologies, he
substituted a view of a dynamically evolving world that is fundamentally
modern in its conception.
Van Mander thought Bruegel's Massacre
of the Innocents (ca. 1566) was a criticism of the mounting
atrocities of the Spanish
Inquisition in the Netherlands. In view of the artist's deliberate
use of the setting of a contemporary Flemish village to stage the
events, this view has gained acceptance from most recent authorities.
Similar in conception, though differing in spirit, is the Numbering
at Bethlehem (1566). In this instance, however, Bruegel
contemporizes the religious events in order to investigate the varieties
of rural life in a winter setting. Here again the religious theme is at
best a pretext
for Bruegel's basically secular art.
Peasant Dance (ca. 1566-1567) represents a new and important
direction that Bruegel was to develop in the last years of his career.
In this work the painter changed to a "large-figure" style in which
highly animated peasants are organized to convey the rhythms and
patterns of the dance. Also, by reducing forms to their elemental
essences Bruegel achieved a clarity
of design and coloration that has seldom been rivaled in Western
At about the same time Bruegel completed one of his most
famous and beloved works, the Peasant Wedding Feast. Conceived
in a spirit of sympathy and affection for country folk, this panel
reveals the artist's delightfully droll
sense of humor as well as his genius in making universal even the most
One of Bruegel's most bizarre works is the Land
of Cockaigne (1567). The composition is made up principally of
figures - a knight, a peasant, and a burgher
- whose forms radiate outward from the center of the picture and are
intended to produce a sensation of nausea
in the spectator.
In this connection, it has also been observed that the sophisticated
device of tilting the ground plane and all the other elements of the
design is one aspect of mannerist influence on Bruegel's art.
of the Blind illustrates the verse from Matthew (14:14): "If the
blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch."
In this great work the descending diagonal formed by the figures of the
blind men is enlivened and activated by the use of color, strong hues
for the foreground
and cooler tones toward the rear. Another development of this period is
a heightened sense of atmosphere, the landscape being one of the most
vaporous in Bruegel's oeuvre.
This highly sensitive landscape
style carries over into what is probably the painter's last work, the Magpie
on the Gallows, a panel which, according to Van Mander, Bruegel
willed to his wife. The seeming accord between the peasant and his
natural environment, one of the main tenets
of Bruegel's art, is oddly vitiated by the presence of a gallows
at the center of the composition. Brooding over a group of dancing
peasants, it forms a striking contrast to the beauties of the setting
and serves as a grim reminder of the basic human condition. Whatever
interpretation is placed on this panel, Bruegel's painting summarizes
all that had gone before and stands at the threshold of the modern era.
In its timeless
validity, Bruegel's art finds no rival before Rembrandt.
master may have represented himself in a drawing (ca. 1567) entitled The
Artist and the Connoisseur, which portrays two half-length figures:
and embittered painter at work and an oafish,
The former, probably a self-portrait, makes no effort to disguise his contempt
for the latter, whose conspicuous moneybag
reveals his philistine
was most directly transmitted through his two painter sons: Pieter the
Younger (1564-1638) and Jan (1568-1625). Well into the 17th century,
however, almost all Flemish painters, including Peter Paul Rubens, were indebted
to Bruegel's vision of the landscape.
book in English on Bruegel is Fritz Grossmann, Bruegel: The
Paintings (1955). It contains an exhaustive
account of the artist's life and works as well as a thoughtful
interpretation of the meaning of the paintings. A brilliant, though
controversial, essay on Bruegel's art and its relation to the thought of
the period is in Charles de Tolnay, The Drawings of Pieter Bruegel,
the Elder, with a Critical Catalogue (1935; trans. 1952). For
information on the engraved works see H. Arthur Klein, ed., Graphic
Works of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1963). Useful general surveys are
Robert L. Delevoy, Bruegel: Historical and Critical Study (1954;
trans. 1959), and the excellent essay in Charles D. Cuttler, Northern
Painting: From Pucelle to Bruegel (1968).