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“Because the world is so deceitful, I go in mourning,” reads the Flemish inscription added to this cryptic masterpiece long after its execution. The allegory shows a man cloaked in black with his eyes hidden. His folded hands, long beard, grimacing lips, and downward-turned head announce his stern character. The man is so lost in his thoughts that he fails to notice the thorns or spikes strewn about the ground beneath his feet.

Approaching from behind, a thief wearing tattered clothes steals his money pouch. The stooped figure is encased in a globe, just as the painting itself is set within a circle. Bruegel seems to be skewering his brooding protagonist, suggesting that he can neither retreat from the world’s pitfalls nor avoid the scrutiny and judgment of the painting’s viewers.

The allegory’s titular misanthrope is likely Timon of Athens, a recluse described by Cicero, Seneca, and many other ancient writers. Like Capodimonte’s The Blind Leading the Blind this work is one of Bruegel’s three surviving paintings executed in distemper, a technique using highly diluted gelatinous paint. The medium results in pale colors that expose the texture of the canvas. The pallid, fragile look lends the painting a macabre atmosphere.

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