Bruegel the painter


What did it mean to be a painter in the 16th century? What was the artist's social status and was painting still considered an artisanal trade?

Early in his career Bruegel - although far from unknown - started to sign his work. His signatures are proof of a certain recognition of his genius by his contemporaries, and indicate that he set himself apart from the ordinary artisan.

By combining rare archival sources from the time with artistic and cultural history from the Southern Low Countries, we can discuss the different aspects of a painter’s job in the Middle Ages, from learning their skill to the art trade networks in Antwerp and Brussels.

What was the typical path of an artist in the 16th century, from apprentice to master? And, what techniques, often from long-standing artisan tradition, did they learn in a master's workshop or during the required journey around Italy?

Above all, how did the genius emancipate himself from this legacy and transcend it to develop his own characteristic style?

CHAPTER 1. Ever changing models, an evolving art

A milestone in a painter's life was the registration in a guild as a master.
From the 14th century, painters were grouped in "trades" or corporations, which controlled and regulated the work of artists and artisans.

Much of what we know about artistic work in this period comes from the Liggeren or "registers" kept by such guilds. They contain lists of painters as well as the names of their apprentices. While the Antwerp guild has existed since 1382, its registers only date back to 1453.

These documents, vital for historians, prove that Bruegel registered with the Guild of Saint Luke in Antwerp in 1551. Whether or not he had an apprentice, is not certain.

From the 16th century onwards, painters typically continued their training after finishing an apprenticeship by journeying through Italy. This was a critical stage before reaching the status of master.

Bruegel brought back numerous landscapes from his Italian journey of two years (1553-1555). These works inspired him throughout his career. For example, the background in his painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus recalls views of the Strait of Messina in Southern Italy.

Bruegel had already come into contact with Italian art during his apprenticeship under Pieter Coeke van Aelst. Aelst was an artist known above all for his tapestry designs. The formal language that he used, particularly in anatomical details of the face and hands, recalls the softly rounded style of Italian Renaissance artists like Raphael.

Upon his return to Flanders, Bruegel started his career by creating drawings for the Antwerp print publisher Hieronymus Cock. These very popular etchings, many copies of which are still in existence, would ensure a wide distribution of Bruegel's work.

It was in 1562 at the age of 37 that Bruegel dedicated himself fully to painting. However, his works do not seem to be the result of official commissions. Bruegel was not a court painter for a monarch, in fact, he worked for private clients.

At the time, Antwerp was an important financial and trading hub as well as being an attractive centre for artists and collectors. Cabinets d'amateur became more common, to such a point that they would later become a separate subject for painters such as Frans Francken (1581-1642) who invented the theme. These cabinets are a testimony to the world of rich collectors who embodied the Antwerp art markets.

It was in this thriving intellectual and artistic trading hub that Bruegel rapidly built up his clientèle. His commissioners included notably the trader Hans Franckert (with whom he would go to village parties), the trader Nicolas Jongelink and even Cardinal Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, counsellor of Charles V and minister for Philip II.

Bruegel signed nearly all his works which proves the recognition that the artist had earned during his lifetime.

It is also interesting to note that the signature of Bruegel and his eldest son, Pieter Brueghel the Younger are easily confused. Indeed, up to 1558, Pieter Bruegel the Elder signed his name "Brueghel" with an "h". He would later abandon the "h" and sign "Bruegel", thus helping to distinguish his signature from that of his sons. Both Pieter and Jan, who were painters like their father, kept the "h".

CHAPTER 2. Pigments, bindings and substrates

From the beginning of the 15th century, oil on wood painting was perfected in the Low Countries, where it enjoyed great success throughout the century.

Flemish Primitives such as Jan Van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden would later glorify this technique.

The innovative technique used linseed oil as a binding agent for ground pigments. The resulting material is then applied onto a wood panel, generally oak, pre-coated in a white gesso made of chalk and animal glue.

Oil paint is generally applied to this base following a preparatory sketch carried out using charcoal or lead pencil.
Bruegel's works follow the tradition of the 15th century Flemish Primitives, a technique which he adopted with great flair.

At the same time, he succeeded in freeing himself from the legacy of the Flemish Primitives by not using the glaze which had made northern painters famous.

This tedious task required a delicate overlay of fine transparent layers which produced refined depth effects in the folds of drapes or human complexions. Bruegel, however, used a more direct "alla prima" technique introduced by Hieronymus Bosch, which involved painting successive layers without giving them the time to dry.

Bruegel used the impasto technique, using a more graphic, thicker painting technique. The pale highlights which catch the light really do stand out. Facial structures, for example, are not achieved by mixing colours into others but using thickness of material. The snow stuck to the trees is, in fact, created using raised brush strokes.

For skies and frozen surfaces, however, Bruegel uses very thin pictorial layers which show traces of the preparatory layer.

Bruegel also exploited another technique commonly used in the 15th and 16th centuries: tempera on non-prepared linen canvas.

In comparison with oil paints, here the pigments are mixed not with oil but with other binding agents such as water, egg, starch, animal glue or even sugar. Furthermore, pieces carried out using this technique are not varnished and thus retain a matt finish. The painter must work quickly as the colours are rapidly absorbed by the linen canvas.

Such a delicate substrate and the fact that the paint materials are not protected by a final coat of varnish make these works extremely fragile and difficult to preserve. Very few examples have stood the test of time. This is what makes The Adoration of the Magi such a rare and precious work, despite the fact that its attribution is disputed by certain experts.

The composition is inspired by a work by Raphael, created in Brussels between 1520 and 1531 and widely disseminated thanks to an etching published by Hieronymus Cock.

The type of support and the dark border which frames the subject are reminiscent of tapestry art.

The linen canvas on which the piece is painted provides the background of the composition and is visible in several places. In the lighter areas, like the roofs, the canvas is made lighter with white.

In contrast to oil paints, there is no underlying sketch here as the preparatory work and painting are done using tempura. The passage from one technique to the other is done progressively.

This process obviously shows the painter's know-how.

Before becoming a painter, Pieter Bruegel was above all a great illustrator with a substantial amount of graphic work to his name.

The Flemish master's work can be categorised into two types of drawings. One the one hand, free drawings, mainly of landscapes (often used again in later paintings). On the other hand, more detailed drawings, designed to become etchings, like this one entitled Prudence, which is part of a series entitled Virtues.

In these drawings destined to become etchings, the hatching and lines - the artist's graphic writing - prove that Bruegel knew the etching process well.

However, it was not he who etched his own drawings. It was other artists such as Pieter van der Heyden and Frans Huys, who meticulously etched his drawings into a copper plate so as to produce a print that was more faithful to the original.

These prints, a great novelty at the time, were somewhat of a success and were largely disseminated on the market. This also added to Bruegel’s fame.

CHAPTER 3. Bruegel and the pictorial traditions of his time

In Antwerp, landscapes became a pictorial theme of their own from the beginning of the 16th century.

It is to Joachim Patenier, originally from Dinant and registered as a free master in Antwerp in 1515, that we owe this inversion in the relationships between landscapes and figures. Figures were thus subordinate elements, like in this Landscape with John the Baptist Preaching. While the landscape is again accompanied by a religious scene, the religious scene is relegated to the background of the composition.

Patenier perfected the art of landscapes with a plunging view with a succession of different planes. Each plane has its own shade: brown for the foreground, green for the middle ground and blue for the background.

This marked the birth of a new type of landscape.

Bruegel adds his own touch of genius to this emerging tradition of Antwerp landscapes.

In this painting by Bruegel, we find the same plunging view and successive planes, each with its own shade.
The peasant and his horse on the hill in the foreground give the work an accentuated perspective thanks to the contrast with the vista towards the horizon.

The light which brightens the middle of the sea and the flanks of the hill, forming a bow-shaped horizon line, give a sense of the curvature of the Earth.

From the 16th century, the representation of the human figure in the Low Countries is influenced by Italian artists such as Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci.

In this work by Quentin Mastys, the composition is organised around the central figure, the baby Jesus. Around him, the characters are set out in aligned triangles which mirror Italian architecture.

At the turn of the 16th century, this painting represented the beginning of the Flemish art Renaissance. Distant landscapes were depicted in the "sfumato" style of Leonardo da Vinci, giving it a mysteriously misty effect. The faces are rooted both in Flemish and Italian art.

From the 16th century, the representation of the human figure in the Low Countries is influenced by Italian artists such as Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci.

In this work by Quentin Mastys, the composition is organised around the central figure, the baby Jesus. Around him, the characters are set out in aligned triangles which mirror Italian architecture.

At the turn of the 16th century, this painting represented the beginning of the Flemish art Renaissance. Distant landscapes were depicted in the "sfumato" style of Leonardo da Vinci, giving it a mysteriously misty effect. The faces are rooted both in Flemish and Italian art.

Pieter Bruegel completed his apprenticeship under Pieter Coecke, an artist who was familiar with the workshop of Bernard van Orley, one of the most famous Italian art representatives in the Low Countries. He was therefore surely familiar with the canons of Italian art passed down to him by such artists. He would, however, remove himself from Italian art to create an original and personal oeuvre.

Bruegel's characters do not have the same Italian mannerisms which were highly in fashion in the North at the time. In fact, his figures are generous in size, expressive and sometimes even caricatural. Their dynamism would later inspire numerous painters.

Composition, perspective, graphism, expressive silhouettes, and narrative story-telling are brilliantly used by the Flemish master to produce effective, beautiful and touching images.Through his pictorial work, Bruegel creates a resolutely Flemish and undeniably modern style which was nevertheless enriched by Italian expertise and Northern heritage. In this context, between tradition and modernity, the Flemish master employs all his pictorial genius. He invents new ways of representing the world around him by telling stories in history.
Royal Museums of Fine Arts
Credits: Story

Jennifer Beauloye

Véronique Vandamme & Jennifer Beauloye

Joost Vander Auwera

-Manfred Sellink, Bruegel : L'oeuvre complet, Peintures, dessins, gravures, Gand, Ludion, 2007.
-Peter van den Brink (dir.), L'entreprise Brueghel, Gand Ludion, 2001.
-Philippe Roberts-Jones et Françoise Roberts-Jones-Popelier, Pierre Bruegel l'Ancien, Paris, Flammarion, 1997.

Véronique Bücken, Joost Vander Auwera, Jean-Philippe Theyskens, Laurent Germeau, Pauline Vyncke, Lies van de Cappelle, Karine Lasaracina, Isabelle Vanhoonacker‎, Gladys Vercammen-Grandjean, Marianne Knop‎.

© Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels
© Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Wien
© KBR, Bruxelles
© Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels / photo : J. Geleyns / Ro scan
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Credits: All media
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