Nature is omnipresent in Pieter Bruegel the Elder's oeuvre.
As the seasons pass, the painter makes an effort to depict the finest details of nature.
Winter holds a particularly important place in his compositions. To such an extent that Bruegel is considered to be the creator of a pictorial tradition which would become extremely popular in Holland over the following century: the painting of winter landscapes.
In 1565, Bruegel embarked on the creation of a masterful Cycle of the Seasons for the Antwerp trader and collector Nicolas Jongelinck.
Five works from this series have survived the passing centuries: Gloomy Day, The Return of the Herd and The Hunters in the Snow (all three of which are kept at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna), The Corn Harvest (in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) and Haymaking (Nostitz collection).
What strikes the viewer is the almost unrivalled attention given to non-idealised nature, without reference to iconology religious or otherwise.
This series, a metaphor for passing time, marks a turning point in western art history.
The Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap, is contemporary to the Cycle of the Seasons, carried out in the same year of 1565.
Held at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, this composition, in a more modest format, is a true masterpiece in the history of Flemish landscapes.
Myriam Dom, guide at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, talks about the role of winter in Pieter Bruegel's oeuvre.
At this time (between 1562 and 1566) the Low Countries, in the middle of the Little Ice Age, experienced several particularly cold and harsh winters. Such winters had a significant impact on people, including artists such as Bruegel the Elder.
Most of his snowy landscapes were in fact painted around 1565. Like this Adoration of the Magi in the Snow, where the painter goes as far as to depict the snowflakes falling from the sky.
Philippe Roberts-Jones, former chief curator at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, goes as far as to see the work as an impressionist piece before its time.
"Here Bruegel proves his innovative mind in a new genre: approaching the world through what makes it visible, the phenomenon of light. What we would one day call impressionism has found its first origins."
Bruegel enthusiasts are not wrong. Nor is the art market: numerous copies of the panel would later be made. There are no fewer than 140 known examples, making this Bruegel's most popular work.
Numerous versions were made by Pieter Brueghel the Younger who set about copying the works that made his father successful in minute detail. He alone is thought to have painted around 50 such copies.
The Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap is not the only one of his father's snowy scenes that Pieter Brueghel the Younger would copy.
The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium also hold this Massacre of the Innocents in their collection, another example of a winter landscape produced by Bruegel's son.
In the original composition, also from 1565, Bruegel the Elder provides a fresh take on a biblical tale in which an order is given by King Herod to kill all the boys of less than two years old around Bethlehem as he fears the arrival of the new King of the Jews, Jesus.
This event is represented in a 16th century winter landscape. Bruegel is even thought to have slipped in several references to contemporary political and religious affairs from the Southern Low Countries, gripped at the time by the Iconoclastic Fury between Catholics and Protestants.
These winter scenes are often accompanied by a litany of picturesque and anecdotal details depicted with tenderness and humour by Bruegel.
Far from moping around due to the glacial cold and withdrawing inside, the inhabitants are taking full advantage of the joys of winter.
In this The Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap under a heavy blanket of snow, the villagers are enjoying themselves skating.
Myriam Dom, guide at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, talks about the way Bruegel plays with contrast in The Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap.
Encircling the stretch of frozen water, the thatched cottages of the village are all covered with a heavy blanket of snow.
In the heart of the village, the church steeple dominates the scene. Some have recognised it as the Church of Sint-Anna-Pede in Pajottenland, south-east of Brussels. Bruegel had been living in Brussels for two years by this time. He journeyed across the Walloon region and delighted in joining village feasts which he would depict many times in his paintings.
Myriam Dom, guide at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, reveals the symbolism in The Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap.
Thus, Bruegel introduces a hidden meaning into his work. A sort of warning against the dangers of thoughtlessness and human temptation.
A reminder of the trap metaphor is echoed by the hole in the ice at the edge of the painting, while the villagers skate dangerously close to it also unaware of the impending danger.
COORDINATION & TEXT
Joost Vander Auwera
-Christina Currie & Dominique Allart, The Brueg(H)el Phenomenon, Brussels, Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage, 2012.
-Manfred Sellink, Bruegel : L'oeuvre complet, Peintures, dessins, gravures, Gand, Ludion, 2007.
-Peter van den Brink (dir.), L'entreprise Brueghel, Gand Ludion, 2001.
THANKS GO TO
Véronique Bücken, Joost Vander Auwera, Myriam Dom, 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
© KHM-Museumsverband, Wien
© Collection Oskar Reinhart « Am Römerholz », Winterthour
© Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels / photo : J. Geleyns / Ro scan