Pieter Bruegel is a famous Flemish painter who lived nearly 500 years ago.

This portrait of Bruegel is a print, created when an image etched into wood is then printed, like a stamp. However, given that it is not a photograph, we cannot be sure that this type of image actually represents reality and that Bruegel really did look like this portrait.

CHAPTER 1. The Painter & His Time

Bruegel lived in the 16th century in Antwerp and Brussels.

To reconstruct the life of someone who lived so long ago, we need to search in old manuscripts and study images which we still have today: paintings and etchings.
We do not know Bruegel's exact date of birth. Books listing the names of all the painters in Antwerp provide insight into the matter. Bruegel became a free master in 1551: that means he finished his training as a painter and could have his own workshop. He was probably between 20 and 25 years old.

Painters had to train in the workshops of other, more experienced painters. For several years, Bruegel was an apprentice under a master before he was able to carry out his profession himself. In this etching, we can see the master in the centre, painting a large canvas. In the foreground, young apprentices practice their drawing.

Bruegel learned his profession in the studio of artist Pieter Coecke van Aelst.

At the time, to perfect their training, artists from the Low Countries went on a long journey to Italy lasting several years. This let them discover works from the Antiquity, created more than 2,000 years earlier.

Antiquity is the time period after the Prehistory, when the Greek and Roman civilisations were developing. Then came the Middle Ages, which lasted 1,000 years. Then the Renaissance, Pieter Bruegel's time. During the Renaissance, artists and thinkers were trying to understand and copy art from Antiquity which was thought to be a glorious and refined period.

Pieter Coecke van Aelst, Bruegel's master, did the same journey around Italy. He was able to admire many works by Italian artists whose influence we can see in his own works. He was inspired not only by the style but also by the subject matter.

Bruegel also went on a long journey through Italy between 1553 and 1554. But, in contrast to his master, Pieter Coecke van Aelst, Bruegel was not really interested in the Italian style. He was much more interested in the landscapes, like the one in the background of this painting.

In this maritime landscape, we can see several magnificent boats. Bruegel was able to see boats like this in fine detail from the port of Antwerp where he lived.
At a time before aeroplanes, these big sailing ships allowed people to travel long distances and even go all the way around the world for the first time.

This was the Age of Discovery: people discovered new continents, new species of animals and exotic plants, and even unknown civilisations.

In another painting called The Fall of the Rebel Angels, we can see amazing details such as the red feathers. They look like a decoration brought back from America and used during the rituals and ceremonies of the Aztec people.

Other details look like the strange animals and fish encountered for the first time in these far-away lands.




...monkeys, etc.

All these exotic details are used to make up the hellish monsters.
Because, in Bruegel's time, this new unknown world was scary.

CHAPTER 2. Painting and Drawing Techniques

More of Bruegel's works were created on wooden panels with oil paints.

At the time, to make his paint and get the right colours, the painter had to mix linseed oil with pigments, like powdered colours. The pigments were made of stones and ground minerals (malachite, for example, gives you a green colour), plant extracts (the "madder" flower gives a red colour), earth (ochre gives yellow and brown colours) and even crushed insects (cochineal gives a crimson red colour).

For this painting, Bruegel used another technique called "tempera".

This means that the pigments were mixed not with oil but with water and glue. The painter then applied the mixture to a linen canvas and not a wooden panel.

When we look closer we can see the threads of the cloth.

You must paint your piece quickly if you work with this technique as the paint dries much faster than oil paint.
Another difference: the colours are matt. They do not shine like oil paints.

As cloth is much more fragile than wood, it is difficult to preserve this type of painting. We only have very few paintings like this made by Bruegel.

But Bruegel was not just a painter, he was also a great drawer. He actually started his career as a drawer.

His drawings represented scenes from daily life, fantastic images with monsters or landscapes.

CHAPTER 3. What Bruegel loved to paint ...

Pieter Bruegel painted lots of monsters.

Sometimes scary...

...sometimes very funny.

At the beginning of his career, Bruegel's drawings were inspired by a very famous artist who lived shortly before him: Hieronymus Bosch.
Bosch was a painter who created funny monsters and terrible devils which greatly inspired Bruegel.

500 years ago, superstitions and belief in magic played an important role in daily life: people believed in devils, witches and also in angels. It is not surprising, then, that we find such things in the artistic works of the time.

In this painting, called The Fall of the Rebel Angels, Bruegel depicts monsters in the midst of battle.

This story is taken from the Bible, the holy book of the Christian faith: angels, who have rebelled against God, are transformed into demons and banished into hell by the angels who have stayed faithful to God. In the centre, the chief of the angels's army is wearing gold armour. His name is Saint Michael. With his cape and shield he is the hero of the painting. We can also see a statue of Saint Michael on the tower of Brussels's Town Hall on the Grande Place.

Bruegel also enjoyed painting the reality of everyday life. We know that he used to go for walks in the villages. He got invited with friends to parties and weddings.

In this painting, which is a copy painted by his son Pieter Brueghel the Younger, you can see a bride and guests dancing to the bagpipes.

Bruegel often depicted childrens's games in his works.

Here, we can see children playing on the ice with a spinning top.

Another child is putting on his wooden skates.

In the foreground a little girl is sliding on a cow bone.

There were not many toys in the past: they were made out of what people found, like animal bones.

The same goes for balls. Plastic did not yet exist at the time: children like this little boy used pigs' bladders.

Bruegel shows us the life of our ancestors, but sometimes he also tells famous myths, taken from Greek mythology, for example.
In this landscape, Bruegel interprets the story of the fall of Icarus: Icarus is held prisoner with his father Dedalus. To escape, they make wings for themselves, using feathers and wax. But Icarus flies too close to the sun: the wax melts and he falls into the sea.
But where is Icarus in the painting?

At first glance we can see a peasant, a shepherd and a fisherman....

It is only when we pay a bit more attention that we can see legs flailing in the waves. It is Icarus, who has just fallen from the sky.

CHAPTER 4. A Genius Painter

Bruegel had two sons, Pieter and Jan, and a daughter, Marie. His two sons would become painters like their father.

Unfortunately, Bruegel the Elder died when he was quite young. Pieter and Jan were only children. They would learn their craft from their grandmother, Mayken Verhulst.

Pieter Brueghel the Younger, known as "Hell Brueghel", mainly reproduced the works that made his father successful. For example, this is a copy of The Census at Bethlehem, which we have already looked at.

Jan Brueghel, known as "Velvet Brueghel", became famous for his paintings of flowers and his delicate and colourful landscapes.

Bruegel's paintings became very successful very quickly: other painters, such as David Teniers, would copy his works like this Village Feast.

Teniers, who was close to the Bruegel family, would later marry one of Bruegel's granddaughters.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder was one of the greatest artists of his time. His work tells us about the world of our ancestors. A changing world, where the old beliefs were still very present, while new discoveries were about to change everything. We find evidence of all of this in Bruegel's works which deal with these subjects from a very personal point of view. His talent was already recognised during his lifetime. His works would later be copied many times and inspire lots of artists all the way through to the modern day.
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium
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.

Véronique Bücken, Joost Vander Auwera, 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
© KBR, Bruxelles
© Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels / photo : J. Geleyns / Ro scan
© KHM-Museumsverband, Wien
© Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels / photo : Photo d'art Speltdoorn & Fils, Bruxelles

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