Bruegel, Pieter the Elder

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder

c. 1525
Breda, Netherlands
Brussels, Belgium

Painter, designer

The Dutch painter and engraving designer Pieter Bruegel (also spelled Brueghel; pronounced BROO-gehl) the Elder is considered one of the foremost artists of the late northern Renaissance. The northern Renaissance was an extension of the Italian Renaissance, a movement based on the revival of ancient Greek and Roman culture (the classical period) that began in Florence, Italy, in the mid-1300s. The Italian Renaissance was initiated by scholars called humanists who promoted the human-centered values of the classical period. Humanist ideals were soon influencing the arts, literature, philosophy, science, religion, and politics in Italy. During the early fifteenth century, innovations of the Italian Renaissance began spreading from Italy into the rest of Europe, where the movement became known as the northern Renaissance. His works provide insight into humans and their relationship with nature. He lived and worked in Antwerp and Brussels (cities in present-day Belgium) at a time when northern European art was strongly influenced by the late Italian Renaissance style called mannerism. Adopted in sculpture as well as painting, mannerism was characterized by distortion of space and elongation of human forms. Although Bruegel used some mannerist techniques, especially in his later works, he chose to develop his own style by adapting the themes and techniques of earlier artists.

The major source of information concerning Bruegel is the Dutch biographer Karel van Mander (1548–1606), who wrote in 1604. Mander claims that Bruegel was born in a town of the same name near Breda on the present-day Dutch-Belgian border. Most recent authorities, however, follow the Italian writer Francesco Guicciardini (1483–1540) in designating the painter's birthplace as Breda itself. From the fact that Bruegel entered the Antwerp painters' guild in 1551, it is assumed that he was born between 1525 and 1530. His master, or teacher, according to Mander, was the Antwerp painter Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502–1550). Bruegel married Coecke's daughter, Mayken, in 1563. After studying and working with artists in Antwerp, Bruegel traveled extensively in France, Italy, and the Alps region in the early 1550s. Returning to Antwerp in 1555, he embarked on a successful career. A versatile painter, Bruegel produced landscapes, religious and allegorical subjects (stories with symbolic meaning), scenes of peasant festivities, depictions of Flemish proverbs (brief statements of truth), and compositions in the manner of Hieronymus Bosch (1450–1516; see accompanying box). Bruegel's career falls into two major phases—the first in Antwerp and the second in Brussels.

Develops his style in Antwerp

In Antwerp, Bruegel produced many designs for the print publisher Hieronymous Cock. His pen drawing titled Big Fish Eat Little Fish was published in 1557 as an engraving by Cock. Cock substituted Bosch's name for Bruegel's in order to exploit the fashion for Bosch's works then current in Antwerp. The series Seven Deadly Sins, engraved in 1558, 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 foolishness and sinfulness.

Bruegel's earliest known paintings were also done in Antwerp. Among them were Parable of the Sower (1557), Children'sGames (1560) and Combat of Carnival and Lent (1559). All were inspired by Flemish folk life, but despite their superficial gaiety, they can be interpreted as allegories of a foolish and sinful world. In Combat of Carnival and Lent, Bosch's influence is still evident in the landscape with a high horizon (line between Earth and sky), decorative patterns, and many iconographic (symbolic) details. Bruegel's own style can be seen, however, in the use of bright, primary colors and a rhythmic organization of forms. His two most bizarre and illusionistic works are Dulle Griet and the Triumph of Death (both probably executed in 1562). Dulle Griet has features of the Bosch style, but unlike Bosch's works it is not intended so much as a moral sermon against the sinfulness of the world as a recognition of the existence of evil in it. Bruegel's view of evil as being part of the human condition carries over into Triumph of Death. This painting has also been interpreted as a reference to the outbreak of religious persecutions in the Netherlands.

Hieronymous Bosch

Hieronymous Bosch (Jheronimus or Jeroen van Aken; 1450–1516) was a Dutch painter who developed a distinctive, often disturbing style. Although Bosch depicted traditional subjects—folk tales, stories about Christ, images of saints—his paintings are filled with bizarre plants and animals, distorted human figures, and amusing cartoon-like creatures. Paying close attention to small details, he used brilliant colors that give a nightmarish, grotesque effect to his pictures. One of his best-known works, Garden of Earthly Delights, seems to be an elaborate morality tale (story with a lesson on good and evil) about the punishment of sinners, yet art scholars have not been able to agree on an exact interpretation of the painting. After Bosch died, Pieter Bruegel the Elder and other artists made copies of his paintings and produced new works that imitated his style. Some modern scholars believe Bosch's art was an expression of his disturbed mental state, while others think it was inspired by witchcraft or alchemy (science devoted to turning base metal into gold) and astrology (study of the heavens to predict future events).

The last of Bruegel's Antwerp paintings is the famous Tower of Babel (1563). The artist did another version later in Brussels. The image of the Tower of Babel comes from the story in the Book of Genesis in the Bible (the Christian holy book). According to the story, the descendants of Noah, who spoke one language, decided to build a tower that reached heaven in order to gain fame for themselves. As punishment for their excessive pride, they no longer spoke the same language and could not communicate with one another. Thus the tower was never completed. Bruegel intended his painting to symbolize the futility of human ambition, and perhaps more specifically to criticize the spirit of commercialism then reigning in Antwerp.

Takes new direction in Brussels

In 1563 Bruegel moved to Brussels, where he remained until his death in 1569. Although he had studied in Italy in the early 1550s, he showed little interest in Italian art until this time. Many of his works show closer attention to composition and feature larger-scale figures than visible in Italian art. He was possibly influenced by the Italian painter Raphael (1483–1520; see entry). Bruegel reportedly studied cartoons (designs or drawings used as plans for paintings and other works) that Raphael made for works at the Vatican. Bruegel's reputation as one of the greatest of all Netherlandish painters is mainly founded upon the works of the brief but highly productive Brussels period. Beginning this phase was Road to Calvary (1564), his largest surviving painting, in which humans are subordinated to the rhythms and patterns of nature. A lower horizon and a new feeling for atmospheric perspective are important stylistic features of this work. In 1565 Bruegel was commissioned to execute a series of pictures of the months for Niclaes Jonghelinck, a wealthy government official. They are based upon the medieval idea of the labors of the seasons. Of the original group, five paintings have survived. Each depicts a two-month period. The central theme of the series is that if humans follow the order of nature, they can avoid the folly for which they are otherwise destined. Bruegel portrayed people as anonymous symbols of humanity who live and work close to the soil in a tranquil state of unity with nature.

The months of December and January are represented by Hunters in the Snow. Dark Day depict the labors or February and March, while Hay Harvest portray the chores of June and July, respectively. The months of August and September are represented by the golden-hued Wheat Harvest, one of the most lyrical panels in the series. Here Bruegel achieved heightened atmospheric effects. The most brilliant panel in the series is Return of the Herd, which represents October and November. A magnificent composition, this painting depicts the scope and grandeur of the natural world.

Bruegel addressed a more troubling theme in Massacre of the Innocents (c. 1566). Art historians have suggested that it was the artist's criticism of the mounting atrocities of the Spanish Inquisition (a court established by the Roman Catholic Church to find and punish heretics, those who violated the laws of the church) in the Netherlands. In view of Bruegel'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 painting, however, Bruegel gave a contemporary interpretation of religious events in order to investigate the varieties of rural life in a winter setting.

Uses large-figure style

Peasant Dance (c. 1566–67) 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 convey the rhythms and patterns of the dance. At about the same time Bruegel completed one of his most famous and beloved works, Peasant Wedding Feast. Expressing a spirit of sympathy and affection for country folk, this painting reveals the artist's delightful sense of humor as well as his genius in giving a universal meaning to even the most trivial events.

One of Bruegel's most disorienting works is Land of Cockaigne (1567). The composition is made up principally of three reclining figures—a knight, a peasant, and a burgher (mayor). These forms radiate outward from the center of the picture, producing a sensation of nausea and dislocation in the spectator. Art scholars suggest that the technique of tilting the ground and all of the other design elements reveal Bruegel's use of the mannerist style. Parable of the Blind (1568) illustrates verse 14 in chapter 14 of the Book of Matthew in the Bible: "If the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch." Another development of Bruegel's late period is a heightened sense of atmosphere in landscape paintings. This style is evident in what is probably his last work, Magpie on the Gallows, (1568) which he reportedly willed to his wife. At the center of the composition is a gallows (a device used for hanging people to death), which hovers 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.

Bruegel may have represented himself in a drawing titled The Artist and the Connoisseur (c. 1567), which portrays a cynical, embittered painter at work with an oafish, uncritical man watching him. The artist, who is probably Bruegel, makes no effort to disguise his contempt for the onlooker, whose conspicuous moneybag reveals his philistine nature (guided by materialism rather than true appreciation). Before his death Bruegel destroyed a number of his satirical drawings to save his wife from persecution. After his death his paintings and prints were endlessly copied and imitated. His peasant subjects and landscapes influenced later Netherlandish painters, including the great baroque (a term used to describe the music, art, literature, and philosophy of the seventeenth century; exuberant, sensuous, expressive, and dynamic style) artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640; see entry). Bruegel's legacy was most directly transmitted through his two sons, Pieter the Younger (1564–1638) and Jan (1568–1625) who also became painters.

For More Information


Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Drawings and Prints. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001.

Web Sites

"Bruegel, Pieter the Elder." [Online] Available, April 4, 2002.

Kren, Emil, and Daniel Marx. "Bruegel, Pieter the Elder." Web Gallery of Art. [Online] Available, April 4, 2002.

Pioch, Nicolas. "Bruegel, Pieter the Elder." WebMuseum. [Online] Available, April 4, 2002.