Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Flemish Artist and Engraver
Near Breda, Netherlands
Summary of Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Pieter Bruegel the Elder was an artist of the Northern Renaissance whose visually engrossing paintings offer a celebration of the common mass of humanity, in contrast to the pious religious painting which dominated much Renaissance art of the previous century. Born in what is now the Netherlands in the 1520s, reputedly into a peasant family, his work focuses on themes such as rural working life, religion and superstition, and the political and social intrigues of his day. These themes were tackled with an unmistakable, droll and often grotesque humor, an interest in the collective over the individual, and a healthy skepticism for narratives of great deeds and men. From the Dutch Golden Age painters of the following century to the Realists of nineteenth-century France and beyond, any artist who has cast their eye over their subject with an honesty debunking mythology works in the spirit of the man sometimes known as "Peasant Bruegel".
- Bruegel's most distinctive stylistic contribution to art history was a form of narrative composition in which a sprawling landscape is filled with a teeming mass of humanity, figures grouped together across the canvas to form various intersecting focal points. Reminiscent of his older countryman Hieronymus Bosch's surreal hellscapes, this approach set Bruegel apart from many Renaissance artists who favored more visually harmonious compositions, offering a snapshot of a lingering medieval view of human society as chaotic and unruly.
- In accordance with his preference for large group compositions, Bruegel produced a series of mythological or historical paintings in which attention is drawn away from the nominal subject of the work towards the everyday life continuing all around it. In his Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, only a desultory pair of legs sinking into the water in the middle distance records the tragic hero's downfall. This represents a departure from the focus on heroic individuals common in Renaissance art, and suggests a sympathy with the common lot of humanity which has been recognized by artists and writers ever since.
- Bruegel was also a pioneer of what would become known as "genre painting", scenes of everyday working life captured with honesty, empathy, and occasional bathetic humor. While he is loath to pay homage to Biblical and mythical heroes, he has far less compunction about representing peasant revelers at a wedding, for example, or a procession of blind beggars. In the centuries to come, notably through the work of Dutch artists of the following century, this focus on everyday life would become the basis of the artistic ethos known as Realism.
Biography of Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Though he is considered one of the greatest artists of the Northern Renaissance, little information exists about the childhood of Pieter Bruegel. All that is known for certain is that he was born Peeter Brueghel, into what many believe was a peasant family, in or near Breda in the Netherlands, between 1525 and 1530.
Important Art by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
One of Bruegel's best-known paintings, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus incorporates a landscape in the foreground with an expansive seascape stretching away towards the horizon. Closest to us, a farmer pushes a plow and horse. To his right, on a lower plateau of land, a shepherd tends to his flock. In the right foreground, a fisherman with his back to the viewer casts his net at the water's edge, while close to the shore in the bottom-right, two legs kick in the air: a comically minute reference to the titular narrative, which therefore seems to unfold in the background of the scene.
This is one of two paintings by Bruegel, which depict the story of Icarus as told in Ovid's Metamorphoses. These were the only two works which Bruegel created on mythological themes, in marked contrast to his contemporaries' focus on heroic narratives. The story revolves around the death of Icarus, the boy who wanted so badly to fly that he constructed wings out of wax and feathers. Failing to heed his father's warning not to fly too close to the sun, his wings melted and he plunged into the sea. We might expect that this tragic denouement would form the focal point of Bruegel's painting, but instead it becomes one incident woven into an all-encompassing representation of common rural life, the demise of the hero rendered almost laughable in its head-first ignominy. The composition is both irreverent and subtly philosophically resonant, expressing a clear skepticism for the bombastic mythological painting that had dominated the previous century of Renaissance art.
This work has been the subject of much moral speculation, revolving especially around the various figures who remain ignorant of Icarus's plight, only the shepherd glancing up towards the sky, and not even towards the relevant spot. The displacement of Icarus from center-stage has been interpreted as a directive to remain focused on one's own daily life. William Dello Russo has even suggested that the painting may illustrate a well-known Netherlandish expression, "one does not stay the plow for one who is dying." Landscape with the Fall of Icarus was given its most famous twentieth-century treatment by the poet W.H. Auden, whose poem Musée des Beaux Arts (1938) considers how suffering and personal drama take place in a wider context of ongoing life.
In one of his more lurid and chaotic paintings, Bruegel offers us a dense allegorical representation of the competing drives underpinning human character by showing the customs associated with two festivals closely aligned in the early-modern calendar. To the left, the figure of the Carnival holds sway: a fat man astride a beer barrel with a pork chop pinned to its front, spit-roasting a pig and wearing a meat pie as a helmet. He presides over a scene populated by jesters, revelers, musicians, thieves, and beggars. To the right, the gaunt figure of Lent, in the habit of a nun, extends a platter of fish, in defiance of his richer offerings. Behind her, hooded figures emerge from the archway of a church, in which the artworks are shrouded in the custom of the season of abstinence. To the other side of the canvas, the tavern provides an equivalent backdrop, standing for the sins and pleasures of the flesh.
Bruegel's complex symbolic representation of contrasting states of sin and piety, pleasure and pain, judgement and redemption, finds its most obvious precedent in the work of an older Netherlandish master, Hieronymus Bosch. In his proto-Surrealist triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights (c.1495-1505) Bosch offers a sequence of landscapes populated by figures in relative states of grace and perdition. What is notable, however, is the lack of any implied supernatural subtext to Bruegel's scene: where Bosch shows us the dire consequences of human error, Bruegel presents the spirit of the Carnival as a force of rebellion and subversion without seemingly offering any positive judgement either way.
The battle between Carnival and Lent stood partly for a contemporary struggle unfolding in Bruegel's home country. In 1556 the Low Countries, in possession of the vastly powerful Habpburg dynasty, passed to King Philip II of Spain, who sought to bring it under a more direct and stricter form of Catholic rule. At the same time, the Netherlandish countries were close to the heart of the unfolding Reformation movement, which viewed Catholic festivities such as Lent with profound suspicion. The carnivalesque energy of the left-hand side of the painting stands not so much for the emergent spirit of Protestantism - which tended to be more repressive of the traditional festive calendar than Catholicism - but for the obdurate pagan customs and rebellious character of an oppressed culture.
This painting shows Bruegel's mastery of complex composition, often based on strong diagonal lines bringing overall cohesion to a large number of intersecting focal points. In The Netherlandish Proverbs, a village setting is chosen as the location for a variety of eccentric and superstitious rituals.
The actions undertaken by the villagers represent approximately 120 different Netherlandish proverbs, all related to the oddities of human behavior. In the left foreground a man bangs his head against a brick wall, representing the tendency of a fool to continue attempting the impossible; to the right, a figure leans distraught over a pot of spilt porridge, reminding the viewer that completed actions cannot be undone. Bruegel is noted for his busy compositions, involving many groups of figures engaged in small interactions. These individual compositions in turn establish an overall theme, often satirical or didactic, a compositional approach which has had a profound impact on art history. The influence of Bruegel's allegorical tableaux can be sensed, for example, in the work of the Dutch Symbolist and Expressionist James Ensor, who uses a similar compositional style in Christ's Entry into Brussels (1888) and The Baths at Ostend (1890).
Bruegel's significance as a forerunner of modern art lies not only in his breaking away from the ordered vanishing-point perspectives and carefully-managed figurative arrangements of the Italian Renaissance, but also from the idealized moral style and grandiose subject-matter which those features implied. By depicting the foibles of everyday human life, Bruegel expanded the range of subjects available to the Renaissance painter with characteristic, irreverent wit.