Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

Bruegel and his surroundings, from Antwerp to Brussels


While Bruegel the Elder was very famous during his lifetime, little is known about him to this day.

To get a better idea of the life of the great Flemish master, an art historian has to begin with known historical facts and an analysis of his complex work.

It is probable that he started his career in Antwerp. In Bruegel's time, Antwerp was a major city with a booming international port.

The painter died in Brussels in 1569 after moving there in 1563. While Bruegel moved to be closer to the Royal court, his motivation was also very personal; he relocated to the parish of the Notre-Dame-de-la-Chapelle church where he was married and buried several years later.

CHAPTER 1. The early years


Despite the Flemish master's fame, his place and date of birth remain mysterious. He was most likely born between 1526 and 1531. However, no official documents are left to certify this information.

Only several secondary sources help to retrace Bruegel’s origins. 35 years after the artist's death, Karel van Mander, Bruegel's first biographer, wrote he was probably born in a village in Brabant, near Breda – written Brueghel at the time.

These overly vague indications are still the subject of discussion between experts, who debate whether he was born in Bree, Breda, Brogel or Breugel. Different arguments back up every single one of these hypotheses.


It was also Karel van Mander who made reference to the young Bruegel's apprenticeship in Pieter Coecke van Aelst’s studio. This studio was one of the biggest and most famous in the Southern Netherlands.

While the dates coincide, Bruegel's paintings show few traces of his master's influence. Van Aelst was strongly influenced by the Italian Renaissance, while Bruegel started his career as a landscape artist following Joachim Patinir's tradition.

Nevertheless (and disregarding the family links between them), there are clues to support the apprenticeship link between Bruegel and Coecke. The two men have certain things in common – linked as much to the artistic context of the time as to the subjects that feature in their work.

Moreover, Mayken Verhulst, Pieter Coecke van Aelst's second wife and Bruegel's future mother-in-law, may also have taught him the rudiments of miniatures. While no miniatures by Bruegel have been found, his work undeniably shows great attention to detail.

Pieter Coecke died in 1550. A year later, in 1551, Bruegel joined the Antwerp Guild of Saint-Luc, under the name "Peeter Brueghels Schilder". This is the first confirmed date in the painter's life. Furthermore, only residents of Antwerp could join the guild. This document thus confirms that Bruegel, wherever he started life, was based in Antwerp at this time.

His first commission dates from the same year, 1551. Still an unknown painter at the time, Bruegel painted for the glove-makers' guild a monochrome for an altarpiece destined for the Saint-Rombaut's Cathedral in Malines.

The rest of the altarpiece was completed by the painter Pieter Balten, seemingly better known than Bruegel. It is therefore ironic that Balten would later be considered one of Bruegel’s followers.


In 1553 (or maybe 1552) and 1554, Bruegel travelled to Italy – an important step in the training of 16th century painters.

There again, few sources allow us to retrace his journey with any certainty. After crossing the Alps, it is plausible that he visited Rome, the Eternal City, and maybe even Venice. The painter Maerten de Vos and the sculptor and medallist Jacob Jonghelinck are thought to have accompanied him for part of his journey. Judging by certain drawings, including this View of Reggio di Calabria on the Strait of Messina, Bruegel may have travelled a long way south.

"Bruegel, on his travels, made a considerable number of views from real life, to the point that, when crossing the Alps, he swallowed the mountains and rocks to throw them back up again, upon his return, on canvasses and panels, so faithful was his work to nature"
(according to Karel van Mander, "Pieter Bruegel, the illustrious painter from Breughel", Schilder-Boeck, 1604).

After his Italian adventures, Bruegel presumably returned to Antwerp between 1554 and 1555.

Antwerp had taken the place of the port of Bruges as a major international trading city. During the Age of Discovery in the 16th century, significant amounts of goods passed daily through the port of Antwerp. The city experienced an economic boom. While the city relied on its former aristocratic elite, it also witnessed the emergence of a new social class, ever more conscious of its economic and political power: the traders.

At the heart of this fruitful activity and with a solid network of European scholars and humanists – attracted amongst other things by publishers such as Christophe Plantin and Hieronymus Cock –, the artists and artisans were not short of commissions.

From 1555, Bruegel worked with Cock, founder and owner of the Aux Quatre Vents publishing house. From the outset, the house published a series of twelve Large Landscapes, brought back by Bruegel from his voyage.

It was only in 1562 that Bruegel dedicated himself more exclusively to painting.

It was in this pivotal year that he painted his magnificent Fall of the Rebel Angels, a real masterpiece preserved at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium.


Bruegel was already very widely renowned during his lifetime. In his years in Antwerp, he had several patrons. While these links are difficult to establish, inventories of royal or bourgeois collections have helped retrace the route taken by certain works.

This is particularly the case for the collection of Nicolaes Jonghelinck (brother of Jacob Jonghelinck who accompanied Bruegel on his journey around Italy), a rich Antwerp merchant and Bruegel's most important patron. He owned no less than 16 of Bruegel's paintings, including one Tower of Babel (the Rotterdam or Vienna version).

Bruegel's early patrons also included eminent figures such as the famous geographer and humanist Abraham Ortelius, and Antwerp Mint Master Jan Noirot, who is thought to have owned five of Bruegel's works including The Peasant Wedding.

The last known painting from Bruegel's Antwerp period is the Two Monkeys panel, dating from 1562 and held at the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.

The painting proffers two pieces of evidence about the city of Antwerp. In the background, the painter unveils a view of the city in the mist, where, according to some researchers, we can even pick out the river Scheldt. In the foreground, the artist points to the port’s trade in exotic animals, in this case collared mangabeys. Some see the monkeys, symbols of human sins, as the painter's moralising interpretation of taxes levied by the city on the goods passing down the river Scheldt.

CHAPTER 2. Prolific artistic activity


Bruegel moved to Brussels in 1563. We know this because he married Mayken Coecke, daughter of Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Mayjen Verhulst. Their marriage was celebrated in the Notre-Dame-de-la-Chapelle church (“Peeter brùgel Mayken cocks soluit”).

The parish marriage register is one of the rare documents that still exist today. This date is thus one of the few certainties we have about the painter's life.

The couple had known each other for a long time. According to Karel van Mander, as an apprentice with Pieter Coecke, Bruegel often walked around his master’s studio, carrying the young girl who, 15 years later, would become his wife.

Experts, however, have recently discovered something astonishing. Thanks to archival research, Bruegel's engagement documents have recently been rediscovered. Not in Brussels, but in the registers of the Antwerp Cathedral. This was very unexpected as, at the time, it was customary to get engaged and married in the same city.

This discovery gives credibility to Karel van Mander's claim that Mayken Verhulst put pressure on the painter: she would only consent to her daughter's marriage if the painter distanced himself from an affair he may have had in Antwerp.

The couple had three children: Pieter Brueghel the Younger (known as "Hell Bruegel") in 1564, followed in 1566 by a girl named Marie and, finally, in 1568, Jan Brueghel (known as "Velvet Brueghel").

Marie is rarely mentioned as she failed to capture historians' attention in comparison to her brothers who became painters like their father.

Between 1563 and 1568, Bruegel completed 29 well-known works. His technique became even more fluent and confident. As the paintings grew in number, his work reached maturity and the painter quickly became renowned by his peers.

Bruegel was notably cited as "an excellent master" by Giorgio Vasari in 1568, in the second edition of his famous Lives of the Artists, the founding work of history of art.

"Diverse production with many masterpieces, where the painter's genius confirms the nobleness and humanity of his vision, the dominant force of his language".
(Ph. & F. Roberts-Jones, 1997, p. 20)


While Karel van Mander reported that the painter was obliged to move to mark a definitive break with his previous conquest, it is also possible that it was to be nearer potential new patrons, thus following his father-in-law's example set several years previously. Brussels was the administrative centre of the Netherlands at the time.

It was, in any case, during his Brussels years that Cardinal Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, Archbishop of Malines and an important advisor at the Brussels court, is thought to have bought several of the painter's key works, notably, Landscape with the Flight into Egypt or, according to recent research by Tine Meganck, The Fall of the Rebel Angels.

CHAPTER 3. In the heart of the Marolles

Upon the death of Irène Heulens-Vandermeiren in 2007, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium inherited the Bruegel House, 132 Rue Haute, in the heart of the historical quarter of the Marolles, Brussels.

While it is known that the painter lived in this parish (visited very frequently by the artisans who made Brussels' fortune), it is currently impossible to certify that he actually lived in this house. However, David Teniers III, Bruegel's great-grandson, did actually live there.

The 16th century house is nevertheless important evidence from the time which allows the visitor to walk into the artist's life in its original setting.

Dr Joost Vander Auwera, curator of ancient art at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, explains the link between Pieter Bruegel the Elder and this building at Rue Haute.

In addition to the house, Irène Heulens-Vandermeiren's bequest included objects that she and her husband, Frans Heulens, had collected over their lifetime.

These objects provide a snapshot of daily life in Bruegel's time. They are useful to understand how the painter worked.

Among these objects, for example, is the stone on which he is said to have crushed his paints with a pestle.

There is also a 16th century enamelled oil lamp, in the glimmering light of which he may have admired his work at the end of the day.

There are numerous objects which feature in his paintings. Like the jugs and bowls...

... which feature in the work entitled The Wine of Saint Martin's Day, the original of which was recently found in Spain and is now held at the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

Dr Joost Vander Auwera, curator of ancient art at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, explains the life of a painter in the 16th century.


Bruegel died in Brussels in 1569. The exact date of his death is still unknown (5 or 9 September or maybe even 13 December).
The painter is buried in the transept of the Notre-Dame-de-la-Chapelle church, near Sablon. Mayken Coeck, his wife, died several years later in 1578.

Their son "Velvet" Jan Brueghel erected a memorial in their honour.

Dr Joost Vander Auwera, curator of ancient art at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, explains where Pieter Bruegel is buried and why.

The memorial features the following inscription in Latin:

"To Pieter Bruegel, painter of faultless work and elegant art, that Nature herself, mother of all things, could praise, that the most qualified admire and his imitators copy in vain.
Also to Marie Coeucke, his wife.
Jan Brueghel piously erected [this stone] for his very dear parents. [...]”

It was his friend, the painter Rubens, that Jan Brueghel commissioned to paint the work which adorns the monument. The Baroque master, who admired Bruegel the Elder's work, depicts the patron saint of artists in the piece entitled Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter, now held at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin.

In 1676, David Teniers III, a descendant of the Bruegel dynasty (Jan Brueghel's grandson) restored the memorial.

Dr Joost Vander Auwera, curator of ancient art at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, talks about Pieter Bruegel the Elder's memorial.

Dr Joost Vander Auwera, curator of ancient art at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, retraces the links between Bruegel and Rubens.

Despite the lack of reliable sources, several milestones help retrace Bruegel the Elder's path between Antwerp and Brussels, two culturally and artistically vibrant cities in the midst of an economic boom.We should be reminded that, at the time of his death, the painter had just received a commission, the only official order he ever got, to depict the digging of the Willebroeck canal (inaugurated in 1575) which was designed to link these two hubs. The painter died before being able to honour the commission, at barely 43 years old.Over his short career, Bruegel left behind an essential collection of work, which today is limited to some 40 surviving pieces. "Nor should I call him the best of painters, but rather the very nature of painters [...] . In all his works, there is always something deeper to understand than what is painted" (Abraham Ortelius, "Album Amicorum", 1573).
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium
Credits: Story

Jennifer Beauloye

Joost Vander Auwera

-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.

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

© Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Wien
© KBR, Bruxelles
© Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels / photo : J. Geleyns / Ro scan
© Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam / Studio Buitenhof, The Hague
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
© Klassik Stiftung, Weimar
© D-Sidegroup

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