Pieter van der Heyden, Big Fish Eat Little Fish, an engraving after a drawing by Pieter Bruegel the Elder


British Museum

British Museum
London, United Kingdom

In the foreground, a child is instructed by its father, 'See [ECCE], the big fish eat the little fish'. He points to the whale-sized fish stranded on the shore, disgorging smaller fish which in turn have swallowed even smaller ones. On the right, a fisherman catches a fish with a little fish at the end of his fishing line. The text below the frame states 'the rich oppress you with their power'.

The inscription ‘Hieronijmus Bos inventor' on the lower left, may be misleading. Hieronymus Bosch (about 1450-1516) was famous for his composite creatures, like the fish with legs depicted here above his name, or the fish flying in the sky. However this composition is certainly by Bruegel, since the preparatory drawing survives with his signature and the date 1556, although it may depdend on a lost prototype by Bosch. Bruegel revived interest in Bosch's imagery, which was in keeping with his rejection of the Italian influence widespread among northern artists at this time, such as Sebald Beham.

The attribution of the design to Bosch may have been the decision of the publisher, Hieronymus Cock. Bosch's fame was greater than Bruegel's in 1557, two years before Bruegel painted Netherlandish Proverbs (Berlin, Gemäldegalerie), which includes this subject in the background. However, the attribution is not entirely inaccurate, for the print does operate within the fantastic world that Bosch first created.


  • Title: Pieter van der Heyden, Big Fish Eat Little Fish, an engraving after a drawing by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
  • Date Created: 1557/1557
  • Physical Dimensions: Height: 227.00mm; Width: 296.00mm
  • External Link: British Museum collection online
  • Technique: engraving
  • Subject: fisherman/fishing; fish; proverb
  • Registration number: 1866,0407.12
  • Producer: Print made by Heyden, Pieter van der. After Bruegel, Pieter. Formerly attributed to Bosch, Hieronymus. Published by Galle, Johannes
  • Material: paper
  • Copyright: Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum

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