THEMES CLOSE TO BRUEGEL'S HEART

Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

Delving deeper into a multi-faceted oeuvre

FOREWORD

For many years, history only recognised those works which earned Bruegel the name "Bruegel the Droll". The artist is often seen as a painter of popular scenes or the creator of trivial characters. We often see his work as little more than fantastical or amusing devils, painted in the style of his illustrious predecessor, Hieronymus Bosch. Bruegel's oeuvre, however, is much more diverse.

As far as his pictorial works are concerned, it seems that the Flemish master did not favour one particular subject matter over another. Fantastical characters are as familiar to him as scenes of daily life.

But regardless of the subject or technique, the painter has always reinterpreted even the most classical of themes in a very personal way, which is in itself a testimony to his great inventiveness.

LANDSCAPES 
CHAPTER 1. Influences from his youth and time in Italy

Bruegel completed his apprenticeship under Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502-1550). This may have led him to adopt a more Italian style which was very fashionable at the time in the North.

Coecke himself travelled across Italy to admire the work of Raphael, amongst others.

Several years later, around 1552, it was Bruegel's turn to leave Flanders for Italy.

Bruegel's journey led him across the Alps and to the tip of the Italian peninsular, via Rome.

Upon his return to Antwerp, around 1554, Bruegel brought back numerous drawings from his journey which had lasted several years. Twelve of them were chosen and etched by Hieronymous Cock to be published between 1555 and 1558. The series of prints, which carry the first evidence of his signature, were known as the Large Landscapes.

At the time, many artists brought back views of Rome and the ancient ruins. Bruegel's drawings, however, took in vast mountainous or maritime panoramas. It was he who created the most majestic landscapes of the 16th century.

The stunning perspective of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus may be inspired by views over the Strait of Messina. The vista under the trees at the end of the field is similar to the wooded landscapes that he drew at that time.

Throughout his career, memories from his travels had a very strong influence on Bruegel's paintings. Unfortunately, none of Bruegel's works from before 1552 exist, making it difficult to get an accurate idea of his work during these years.

At the time, many artists brought back views of Rome and the ancient ruins. Bruegel's drawings, however, took in vast mountainous or maritime panoramas. It was he who created the most majestic landscapes of the 16th century.

The stunning perspective of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus may be inspired by views over the Strait of Messina. The vista under the trees at the end of the field is similar to the wooded landscapes that he drew at that time.

Throughout his career, memories from his travels had a very strong influence on Bruegel's paintings. Unfortunately, none of Bruegel's works from before 1552 exist, making it difficult to get an accurate idea of his work during these years.

The large ships in Antwerp and Italy left European ports to conquer the world which was, by that time, significantly far-reaching. These great vessels which crossed the seas are symbols of the 16th century’s spirit of adventure and discovery, an age of transition towards modern society.

An embodiment of the spirit of his time and hungry for the descriptions brought back from the New World, Bruegel includes the future potential of science and progress in his work., thus anchoring himself in the transformations inherent to the 16th century.

BRUEGEL, THE "SECOND BOSCH"
CHAPTER 2. Monsters and grotesque scenes

The Large Landscapes series marked the beginning of intense production of etchings for the print publisher Hieronymus Cock, who in 1548 founded the Aux Quatre Vents publishing house, driven by the spirit of Erasmus. The presence of the geographer Ortelius, the botanist Dodoens, and the cartographer Mercator made it a place for meetings, curiosity and humanism. It was a Renaissance hotbed.

In 1556, Bruegel signed the painting entitled Big Fish Eat Little Fish, a work which was entirely in the spirit of Hieronymus Bosch and which has also been attributed to the latter. The work was engraved the following year by Pieter van der Heyden and edited by Hieronymus Cock.

Cock had already published drawings inspired by Bosch. These works were a great success at the time.

Bruegel signed numerous preparatory drawings for the Antwerp publisher faithful to Bosch's spirit. In particular, the famous series entitled The Deadly Sins. The theme of the sins and virtues of humanity had been widely represented since the Middle Ages: sloth, pride, avarice, lust, wrath, gluttony and envy.

By observing Bosch's monsters, we can immediately see the legacy he left for the artists of 16th century Flanders and, in particular, for Pieter Bruegel.

Karel van Mander's biography helped to establish the strong affinity between Bruegel and Bosch.

"He practiced copying Hieronymus Bosch's work and also created numerous fantastical or grotesque scenes in this genre. This is why some nicknamed him Pierre the Droll"
(according to Karel van Mander, Schilder-Boeck, 1604)

In Bruegel's work, paintings "in Bosch's style" became much less frequent from 1559-1560. At the same time, he created a series of prints featuring the Virtues, from which this painting on Prudence is taken. Published by Cock once again, this new series is considered by some experts as the counterpart for the Sins series.

Here, he focuses in particular on reality more than fantasy. The Latin word prudentia has three meanings: intelligence, foresight and prudence. The numerous motifs in this drawing deal with these three aspects.

On the left, for example, meat is being salted in anticipation of winter.

In the background, the harvest is being stored.

On the right, a woman is putting out a fire with water.

In the middle, Prudence is holding a mirror in her left hand, which represents self-awareness.
She bears a sieve on her head allowing to distinguish between Good and Evil, Truth and Lies.

While the close relationship to Bosch weakened from the late 1550s on, it was rekindled one more time in 1562, in one of his most beautiful works: The Fall of the Rebel Angels. This key painting is probably the strongest evidence of Bruegel's link to Bosch, to such an extent that the work was first attributed to the master of The Garden of Earthly Delights himself.

Compared to his contemporaries’ representations of this religious theme, the Flemish master's interpretation of the apocalypse is rooted in an older pictorial tradition. It shows, however, details of scientific curiosities of his time.

NATURE & FOLKLORE
CHAPTER 3. The eternal return of the seasons

In The Fight between Carnival and Lent, Bruegel painted a series of skits which can be appreciated individually but also form a coherent whole. In doing so, Bruegel demonstrates his mastery of composition.

His aim in this piece was to represent all the festivals of the liturgical calendar between Christmas and Easter. Epiphany, Saint Valentines, Mardi Gras and Palm Sunday are among the many scenes depicted by the painter to symbolise the perpetual renewal of nature's cycle.

At the same time, Bruegel painted his famous work illustrating the Dutch Proverbs. Held at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, this work (engravings of which would later be reproduced countless times) uses the same listing process.

Be it in works such as Landscape with the Fall of Icarus or The Census at Bethlehem, we often find, hidden in the detail, a reference to a saying, expression or proverb.

His Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap, linked to expressions and proverbs close to Bruegel's heart and contemporary with the Cycle of the Seasons, would later become very famous.

In this landscape, Bruegel depicts a winter atmosphere once again. The true subject is elsewhere, however. As in Prudence, Bruegel warns the spectator about the dangers of recklessness. The skaters unaware of the danger that the ice might give way under their feet echo the audacity of the birds coming too close to the trap which is waiting for them.

Seen up close, the faces, expression and movements of the characters captured by Bruegel shine with the artist's graphic talent and incredible capacity for synthesis.

In these folkloric works, the artist invites the viewer to participate in festivities like he himself used to. His first biographer, Karel van Mander, recounts how he used to mix with the guests at parties and weddings, accompanied by his friend the trader Hans Franckert.

The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow is one of numerous copies by Pieter Bruegel the Younger from a work by his father. This work is dated 1567 and held at the Oskar Reinhart de Winterthur Foundation.

The composition details a multitude of scenes from daily life on a winter's day, whilst the religious scene is relegated to the bottom left-hand corner of the painting.

RELIGIOUS SCENES
CHAPTER 4. A modern-day and very personal interpretation

Bruegel has also painted a significant number of biblical scenes which, contrary to the aforementioned example, do not always play a secondary role. This is particularly the case for The Adoration of the Magi, an undated canvas considered by some authors to be one of Bruegel's early works.

The Adoration of the Magi is a theme traditionally touched on by Flemish artists from the 15th and 16th century. In this work, Bruegel follows a more traditional iconography than the one featured in his Adoration of the Magi in the Snow, painted at the end of his career.

The Census at Bethlehem, dated 1566, also depicts a biblical scene that the painter makes contemporary by situating it in a Brabant village.

It is not all that rare that Bruegel brings together several pictorial experiences in one composition.
In comparison with paintings such as The Proverbs or the The Fight between Carnival and Lent, the different phases of this painting take place as if in real life and aren't artificially composed. It is as if the painter had taken a snapshot of life in a village on the night before Christmas.

The Massacre of the Innocents also dates from 1566-1567, a work created by Bruegel's son which the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium holds two copies of.

The idea and the design are the same as those in The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow and The Census at Bethlehem, as they are both biblical scenes set in a Brabant landscape depicting daily events.

CONCLUSION
As different artistic influences come together, the themes broached by Bruegel do not follow a chronological order. Indeed, the landscape tradition, Bosch's legacy and the gender scenes are some of the many subjects that appear simultaneously in his works.Bruegel's short career seems to oscillate between wide-angled landscapes depicting a vast space, and focus on the personalities of his contemporaries, between the imaginary realm and daily reality, between suspended time and looking to the future.
Credits: Story

COORDINATION
Jennifer Beauloye

TEXT
Véronique Vandamme & Jennifer Beauloye

SCIENTIFIC OVERSIGHT
Joost Vander Auwera

SOURCES
-Manfred Sellink, Bruegel : L'oeuvre complet, Peintures, dessins, gravures, Gand, Ludion, 2007.
-Philippe Roberts-Jones et Françoise Roberts-Jones-Popelier, Pierre Bruegel l'Ancien, Paris, Flammarion, 1997.

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

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

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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