A family of Flemish painters who produced paintings and drawings largely inspired by the work of its patriarch, Pieter Brueghel the Elder. This artist is best known for his new way of rendering natural landscapes and his bucolic scenes of peasant life. Born in the town of Breda, Brueghel apprenticed with the painter Pieter Coecke van Aelst and joined the Antwerp painters' guild in 1551. Like many northern European artists, he traveled to Italy to study the new styles pioneered by southern painters. In Italy Breughel produced his first signed painting, Landscape with Christ and the Apostles at the Sea of Tiberius. On his way home to Antwerp, he crossed the Alps, where the dramatic mountain landscape inspired him to make studies of natural forms that he later incorporated into his works.
On his return to the Low Countries, Brueghel worked as an engraver for an Antwerp publisher, Hieronymus Cock. The workshop produced the prints that were fashionable in merchant and middle-class families unable to afford commissioning original paintings. A Brueghel drawing entitled Big Fish Eat Little Fish appeared in 1557, with the signature of the better-known Hieronymus Bosch substituted for Brueghel's to boost sales. Bosch, then a renowned Flemish painter, remained an important influence on Brueghel, and the younger painter directly imitated him in his 1558 series of engravings entitled Seven Deadly Sins as well as allegorical paintings, including The Triumph of Death and The Fall of the Rebel Angels.
Brueghel's Combat of Carnival and Lent, completed in 1559, was his first signed painting. The painter was still modeling his work on Bosch, but also using stronger colors and arranging elements in the picture to achieve a careful balance of shapes and lines. The Netherlandish Proverbs and Children's Games, as well as the Combat of Carnival and Lent, were crowded canvases of multiple scenes and symbolic characters, all standing for the foibles and follies of the everyday world. In this manner Brueghel also painted Dulle Grief and The Triumph of Death, a gloomy landscape of fire, murder, and death that some historians believe was inspired by the religious civil wars then consuming much of northern Europe. The Tower of Babel, painted in 1563, is based on a biblical parable showing the folly of human ambition and the pretension to greatness.
Brueghel moved to Brussels, Belgium, in 1563. In the last few years of his life, he painted his most famous pieces, including The Road to Cavalry and The Blind Leading the Blind. Brueghel won a commission to paint a series of pictures of the seasons and months. Five of these paintings have survived to the present day and have become icons of the northern Renaissance: Hunters in the Snow, Dark Day, Hay Harvest, Wheat Harvest, and Return of the Herd. In beautifully rendered and vividly colored compositions, these paintings show man in harmony with a beneficent nature. Brueghel in these paintings left behind the religious context of medieval painting, and rendered the world in its natural visible state without the interference of religious doctrine and symbolism. Because of this approach to his art many consider Brueghel to have been the first truly “modern” painter.
Completed in 1566, Brueghel's Massacre of the Innocents was the painter's view of the tyranny of Spain's occupation of the Netherlands. Brueghel gained his reputation as a painter of peasant life through two of his most famous pictures, Peasant Dance and Peasant Wedding Feast. In these paintings Brueghel made the human figures more prominent, using expressions, poses, and colors to convey elemental human characteristics: joy, greed, hunger, stupidity, innocence, exuberance, and boredom. Peasant Wedding Feast shows not only Brueghel's masterful skill at rendering forms, but also an uproarious sense of humor and great sympathy for the universal condition.
One of Brueghel's late works, Land of Cockaigne, is a return to medieval allegory. The painter renders a knight, a peasant, and a merchant, all of them slightly off balance and falling victim to their weaknesses. Magpie on the Gallows, painted about the same time, shows a gallows rising above a scene of peasants celebrating in a field.
Brueghel's son, known as Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564–1638), made his living producing copies of his father's works. Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625) was known for his peaceful floral landscapes and still lifes. Both men were boys when their father died.
See Also: Bosch, Hieronymus