Bruegel Family

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BRUEGEL FAMILY. The Bruegels were a family of painters active from the mid-sixteenth century through the seventeenth century, primarily in Antwerp. The Bruegel family employed many spelling variants of their name, as was common in the early modern period. The spellings used in this article are those most frequently used by the particular artists concerned.

The origins of the Bruegel family are unclear; the earliest records concerning Pieter Bruegel the Elder date from his immigration to Antwerp. Ludovico Guicciardini, the Italian chronicler, and Karel van Mander, the painter-author of the first comprehensive history of artists from the Netherlands, both state that Bruegel came from or near Breda. He was born c. 15251530 and died in 1569.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder moved to Antwerp in the 1540s, perhaps to study with the painter Pieter Coecke van Aelst. He entered the St. Luke's Guild of painters in Antwerp in 1551 and soon afterward left for Italy. He journeyed via the Alps, which he sketched during his travels and later incorporated into many of his compositions. Upon his return to Antwerp in 1555, Bruegel produced drawings for the Antwerp publisher Hieronymus Cock, including allegories in the style of Hieronymus Bosch, landscapes, and genre scenes. Partly on the basis of these early compositions, such as Big Fish Eat Little Fish (1556), Bruegel's earliest critical reputation was as a Bosch follower. Among his painted works, Bruegel's affinity with Bosch is seen in Dulle Griet (Mad Meg, c. 1562) and The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562).

Bruegel's earliest signed works, the Landscape with Christ on the Sea of Tiberius (1553) and the Landscape with the Parable of the Sower (1557), are within the world-landscape tradition of Joachim Patinir. Starting in 15591560, Bruegel turned his attention to the folkloric subjects for which he is best known, with such painted compendia as the Netherlandish Proverbs (1559), Battle of Carnival and Lent (1559), and Children's Games (1560). In 1563 Bruegel married Mayken Cocks, the daughter of Pieter Coecke van Aelst. Mayken then resided in Brussels, to which Bruegel immigrated. Starting in 15621563, Bruegel extended his repertoire to include paintings depicting biblical history, often set in dramatic landscapes employing alpine scenery. Among these works are the Suicide of Saul (1562), the Tower of Babel (1563), Landscape with Flight into Egypt (1563), and The Procession to Calvary (1564), Bruegel's most complex composition.

In the latter 1560s, Bruegel again turned to vernacular subjects, producing a series of the year's months for Nicholas Jonghelinck, a local patrician. He also depicted peasant festivities in such works as the Wedding Dance (1566) and the Peasant Wedding (1568). In paintings like The Cripples (1568) and The Parable of the Blind Leading the Blind (1569), Bruegel returned to his earlier works to select details as the subjects for entire compositions. He died in 1569 at the age of forty-four. Bruegel was long critically regarded as a naïve artist originating from the rural peasantry he portrayed. With the discovery of his close relationship with the geographer and humanist Abraham Ortelius, his reputation shifted to that of an accomplished intellectual. Most recently, scholars situate Bruegel within the culturally dynamic middle class of Antwerp.

Pieter Breughel the Younger (15641638), elder son of Pieter I, was only five years old when his father died. He probably received his earliest training from his grandmother Mayken Verhulst, an accomplished miniaturist, followed by an apprenticeship with the landscape artist Gillis van Conincxloo. He enrolled in the Antwerp painter's guild in 15841585. Pieter the Younger was a tireless, if uninspired, copyist of his father's works. These include numerous versions of the Netherlandish Proverbs, The Census at Bethlehem, and the Winter Landscape with a Birdtrap. Pieter the Younger's copies also provide visual access to some of the now lost works of his father, such as the Crucifixion (c. 1615) and The Visit to the Farm (c. 1620). Pieter the Younger also created works like the humorous Peasant Lawyer (1516) and Egg Dance (1620) that, although painted in the mode of his father, appear to be his own compositions. Pieter the Younger was also a landscape painter in his own right, as seen in the charming Peasant Village with Dance around the May Tree (1634). Pieter the Younger's eldest son, also named Pieter, entered the painter's guild in 1608, but little else is known of his career.

Jan Brueghel the Elder (15681625) was a more accomplished and financially successful artist than his brother. He traveled to Italy while still quite young, and his arrival in Naples by 1590 is documented. In 15921595 he resided in Rome, under the patronage of Cardinal Colonna, where he produced his earliest work, the Bay with Warship. By 1596 Jan had relocated to Milan to work for his lifelong patron, Cardinal Federico Borromeo. He entered the St. Luke's Guild in Antwerp in 1597. Jan's success as an artist is confirmed by his close relationship with the Brussels court, as a result of which he received special privileges from Archduke Albert, although he appears never to have received an official appointment as court painter. Jan died in 1625 during a cholera epidemic, together with three of his children.

Jan Brueghel employed a meticulous technique (earning him the nickname "Velvet Brueghel"), perhaps acquired from his maternal grandmother, the previously mentioned miniaturist Mayken Verhulst. He worked in a variety of genres, including landscapes, mythological scenes, hell scenes, floral still lifes, and allegories. Jan specialized in works on copper, such as his Adoration of the Three Magi (1598), utilizing the reflective ground to create images with brilliant color and the effect of light. These works were likely produced for princely collections, which he also thematized in his five Allegories of the Senses (now in Madrid). In addition, Jan collaborated with Peter Paul Rubens, Hendrik van Balen, and others to create works in which floral wreaths by Jan surround religious or mythological groups of figures by the other painters.

Jan Brueghel the Younger (16011678) was the only child from Jan the Elder's first marriage. Trained by his father, he was sent in 1622 to Italy, under the protection of Cardinal Borromeo. He traveled extensively, returning to Antwerp in 1625, whereupon he entered the painters' guild. He worked in his father's atelier, which he took over after his death. Jan Brueghel the Younger's work is firmly entrenched within his father's tradition, including landscapes and still lifes, with garlands surrounding devotional scenes.

Ambrosius Brueghel (16171675) was the son of Jan Brueghel the Elder by his second wife. His training possibly began with his father and continued under van Balen; he entered the St. Luke's Guild in 1647. The few works ascribed to Ambrosius, all oil on panel, are either landscapes loosely following his father's style, or symmetrically balanced floral still lifes.

Jan Peeter Brueghel (16281680) was the eldest son of Jan Brueghel the Younger. Registered with the St. Luke's Guild in Antwerp in 1646, he later traveled to Italy, where he remained until his death. His known works are all floral still lifes, either composed in vases or as wreaths surrounding devotional or narrative scenes.

Abraham Bruegel (1631?1680), the second son of Jan the Younger, had already sold his first work, a small floral painting, by the age of fifteen. Like his brothers, he immigrated to Italy, residing in Rome as a member of the rowdy Schildersbent group of expatriate Netherlandish artists. He produced elaborate still lifes in oil on canvas, such as the Woman with Fruit Still Life (1669). A third son of Jan the Younger, Jan Baptist Brueghel (16701710), also specialized in still lifes and resided in Rome.

See also Netherlands, Art in.


Brink, Pieter van den, ed. Brueghel Enterprises. Maastricht, Brussels, and Ghent, 2001.

Bruegel: Une dynastie des peintres. Brussels, 1980.

Ertz, Klaus, and Christa Nitze-Ertz. Breughel-Brueghel: Pieter Breughel le Jeune (15641637/8), Jan Brueghel l'Ancien (15681625): une famille des peintres flamands vers 1600. Lingen, 1998.

Gibson, Walter. Bruegel. London and New York, 1977. Meadow, Mark A. Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Netherlandish Proverbs and the Practice of Rhetoric. Zwolle, 2002.

Winkelmann-Rhein, Gertraude. The Paintings and Drawings of Jan "Flower" Bruegel. New York, 1968.

Mark A. Meadow