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Monday, October 22, 2018

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The Battle between Carnival and Lent, 1559, Pieter Bruegel (the elder), one of his best works.
Every so often I come to realize that an important artist, mentioned frequently in the past in various contexts, I've never adequately explored in his own right (or write). That would appear to have been the case with the Flemish Renaissance painter, Pieter Bruegel (the elder). His influence can be seen in the works of other Dutch artists such as Roelant Savery, Abraham Teniers, Lucas van Valckenborch, and present day-painter, Paul Gosselin. I guess, having mentioned him so often, it was only when searching for what I assumed I'd written about the man, that I realized I'd actually written very little or nothing about him. Then too, there's the fact that Bruegel's son, Pieter Bruegel (the Younger) was largely responsible for making the work of his father so popular in the years following his father's death in 1569. His son was five years old at the time. Their works have often been confused in the past. They say, "familiarity breeds contempt." Perhaps, but at the very least it breeds oversights.

The Tower of Babel, 1563, Pieter Bruegel (the elder)
Just for the record, Pieter Breughel (the elder) was born around 1525, probably in Breda, a duchy of Brabant (now in the Netherlands). He died in 1569, in Brussels. His The Tower of Babel (above), painted in 1563, is one of his most famous and influential works. It's also the painting of his which I've most often referred to in the past in conjunction with works of other artists. However, Bruegel's best works, such as The Battle Between Carnival and Lent (top) from 1559 are not so well known. It depicts (among many other things) one man straddling a barrel while wielding a skewered pig, another playing a stringed instrument while wearing a pot on his head. However, stirred into this chaotic crowd scene are characters engage in everyday tasks. Women are seen slicing fish, panhandlers begging, and a festive group dancing in a circle in the background. So many bodies populate the depicted village that a viewer might return to the picture again and again, spotting new details each time as though scanning a page from Where’s Waldo?

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565,
The Painter and the Buyer.
Without fear of contradiction, I would say that Pieter Bruegel was the greatest Flemish painter of the 16th century. His landscapes and vigorous, often witty scenes of peasant life are particularly renowned. Since Bruegel signed and dated many of his works, his artistic evolution can be traced from the early landscapes, in which he shows affinity with the Flemish 16th-century landscape tradition, to his last works, which are Italianate. He exerted a strong influence on painting in the Low Countries, and through his sons, Jan and Pieter, he became the ances-tor of a dynasty of painters that surviv-ed into the 18th century. In addition to a great many drawings and engravings by Bruegel, 45 authenticated paintings from a much larger output (now lost) have been preserved.

The Peasant Dance, 1568, Pieter Bruegel (the elder).
In contrast to Bruegel's "crowd scenes" such as The Peasant Dance (above), from 1568, his 1565 work The Hunters in the Snow (below), which is much more familiar, offers a more serene winter landscape. Three men and their dogs returning from a hunt trudge through the snow towards a village in the valley below. In this idyllic town, peasants skate and play a type of proto-hockey on the frozen lake. Off to the side, men and women build a fire outside a brick inn. In the cold, life is more subdued. Despite the difference in tone, both paintings convey Bruegel’s defining attention to rustic life in the Low Countries (which then encompassed Belgium, the Netherlands, and French Flanders) during the Northern Renaissance.

Hunters in the Snow, 1565,  Pieter Bruegel (the elder).
Detail, Procession to Calvary.
But there’s much more to Bruegel than his humble peasant scenes. In The Hunters in the Snow, a flat gray-green sky sits heavily above the snowy ground. He captures the chill in the air. He’s able to capture weather like no other artist. His second-largest painting, Procession to Calvary (below) from 1564,  created late in his life, demonstrates the artist's exper-tise allowing him to combine his two greatest strengths. Bruegel's treatment of landscape evolves in the course of his career. In this case, however, his desire to convey the rocky, unfamiliar terrain of the Holy Land causes him to fall back on the ready-made landscape features of the Antwerp school as seen in the detail at right.

The Procession to Calvary, 1564, Pieter Bruegel (the elder).
As evidenced by Bruegel's Procession to Calvary, the subject matter of his compositions covers an impressively wide range. In addition to the landscapes, his repertoire consists of conventional biblical scenes, parables of Christ, mythological subjects as in Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (two versions), and the illustrations of proverbial sayings in The Netherlands (or Dutch) Proverbs (below), and The Battle Between Carnival and Lent (top). Many of Bruegel’s works mirror the moral and religious ideas of Dirck Coornhert, whose writings on ethics show a rationalistic, commonsense approach. He advocated a Christianity free from the outward ceremonies of the various denominations, Roman Catholic, Calvinist, and Lutheran, which he rejected as irrelevant. In an age of bitter conflicts arising out of religious intolerance, Coornhert pleaded for toleration. Bruegel, castigated human weakness in a more general way, with avarice and greed as the main targets of his criticism.

The Dutch Proverbs, 1559, Pieter Bruegel (the elder).
Bruegel’s style most closely resembles that of his fellow Dutchman, Hieronymus Bosch, an artist most famous for his ghastly, chaotic triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, painted around 1490–1500. The work displays scenes of earth, hell, and paradise, filled with nude bodies cavorting, swimming, and suffering grotesque punishments at the hands of monsters. Although not the primary emphasis in his work, Bruegel did sometimes dabble in supernatural, debauched, and terrifying imagery. In The Triumph of Death (below), painted about 1562–63, bodies topple over one another in an apocalyptic, charred landscape. A skeleton army battles the humans, some of whom hang from far-off gallows. The background is a barren landscape in which scenes of destruction are still taking place. In the foreground, Death leads his armies from his reddish horse, destroying the world of the living. The latter are led to an enormous coffin with no hope for salvation. All of the social institutions are included in this composition and neither power nor devotion can save them. Some attempt to struggle against their dark destiny while others are resigned to their fate. Only a pair of lovers, at the lower right, remains outside the future they too will have to suffer. This painting depicts a customary theme in medieval literature: the dance of Death, which was frequently used by Northern artists. Brueghel casts the entire work in a reddish-brown tone that gives the scene an infernal aspect appropriate for the subject at hand. The profusion of scenes and moralizing sense applied by the artists are part of Hieronymous Bosch´s influence on this work. This deeply disturbing painting brings Bosch’s hellscapes into our world.

The Triumph of Death, 1562-63, Pieter Bruegel (the elder).

Magpie on the Gallows, 1567,
Pieter Bruegel (the elder)
Bruegel’s last works show a striking affinity with Italian art. The diagonal spatial arrangement of the figures in Peasant Wedding recalls Venetian compositions. The figures in such works as Peasant and the Nest Rob-ber, from 1568, have something of the grandeur of Michelangelo. In Brue-gel's last works, the two trends meet. There is the monumental as well as an extreme simplification of figures combined with an exploration of the expressive quality of the various moods conveyed by landscape. The former trend is evident in his Hunters in the Snow. The latter is seen in the radiant, sunny atmosphere of The Magpie on the Gallows (left) and in the threatening and somber character of The Storm at Sea (below). In the past doubts have been raised about the attribution of this painting to Bruegel. The name, Joos de Momper, a landscape painter who became a master in the Antwerp guild in 1581, is often mentioned. However, not only is this painting superior to any by de Momper, its similarity to a drawing by Bruegel, its originality of composition, and its delicacy of execution have made it generally accepted as a late work by Bruegel, possibly left unfinished at his death.

The Storm at Sea,  1569, Pieter Bruegel (the elder)


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