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Hunters in the Snow (Winter)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder1565

Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

In the late 16th century, the Antwerp banker Niclaes Jongelinck owned one of the most important painting collections in the Netherlands. He commissioned Bruegel to create a series of six seasonal paintings, the last of which is shown here. The series also included: Gloomy Day (Early Spring; KHM, GG 1837), Spring (now lost); Hay-Harvest (Early Summer; Nelahozeves Castle, Czech Republic, Lobkowitz Collection); The Harvesters (Late Summer; New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art); Return of the Herd (Autumn; KHM, GG 1018). For the composition of this series, Bruegel, who today is regarded as the most progressive landscape painter of the 16th century, followed an older tradition that divided the year, beginning on 1 March, into six unequally long seasons. What all the compositions have in common is the so-called balcony motif, i.e., the depiction of a hill in the foreground from which an overall view of the landscape unfolds. On top of the hill a group of hunters accompanied by a pack of dogs is seen, making their way back to the village below. Their catch is poor: a single fox dangling from the spear the hunter on the left carries on his shoulder. To the hunter’s left, Bruegel added a motif that had been used forquire some time in book illumination for depicting the month of December: the preparations for singeing a pig over an open fire outside a building. The damaged sign hanging above them reveals the name of the inn: “dit is inden Hert”, meaning “To the Deer” – a well-aimed passing shot. Entertaining details, such as the people ice-skating on the frozen lakes, have contributed to the painting’s enormous popularity. However, it does not owe its significance in art history to its details but rather to the overall impression conveyed by the coloration and composition. With virtuosity and consistency Bruegel evokes the impression of cold: white, blue-green and brown are the dominant colours. The precise silhouette of the trees, the frozen mill-wheel at the lower right and the icy surface of the snow revealed by the hunters’ footprints blend together to convey the fundamental characteristics of winter. The scene is an invented, universally formulated landscape: the combination of a chain of Alpine mountains with Flemish architecture renders pointless any search for reality. © Cäcilia Bischoff, Masterpieces of the Picture Gallery. A Brief Guide to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna 2010

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