Instant fame, lasting influence
Pieter Bruegel the Elder died in Brussels in 1569. Ironically, this is one of the few events in Bruegel's life that we can be sure about.
Already praised by the greatest figures of his time, there was no doubt that the master quickly earned himself a great reputation across Europe. His rare works were avidly pursued in prestigious circles and among humanists and scholars.
The market was not wrong: countless copies and pastiches in the style of the Flemish master would soon flood the market.
Beyond these pallid reproductions, the painter's oeuvre would have a profound impact on the minds of several generations of artists who took inspiration from Bruegel the Elder thus sustaining his genius
Bruegel left behind three young children when he died. His two sons, Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Jan Brueghel the Elder, were the first to continue Bruegel the Elder's work.
Pieter Brueghel the Younger, nicknamed "Hell Brueghel", would work almost exclusively like his father for his whole career. From the last decade of the 16th century, he produced numerous copies, variations and pastiches of his father's works, thus helping their dissemination.
His younger brother also produced this type of work. However, Jan Brueghel the Elder, nicknamed "Velvet Breughel", managed to distance himself from his father's influence and develop a more personal style. In particular through small-format landscapes and still lifes, like this one.
However, the two brothers did not have access to a single one of their father's original works.
Their copies were made from Bruegel the Elder's preparatory drawings (or from reproduction cartoons), the original copies of which were hidden and dotted across Europe in the most prestigious private collections.
From the 16th century, Bruegel the Elder's works were precious and actively sought out by art aficionados and collectors from around the world.
It was not long, then, before the creation of the "in-the-style-of-Bruegel" and "Bruegel-imitation" markets. Generally working anonymously, his sons supplied these markets, amongst others, very generously.
By far the most copied of Bruegel's works is undoubtedly his Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap from 1565, with no less than 140 known copies, the original of which is held at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. Some 50 copies were the work of Pieter Brueghel the Younger.
Already in his own lifetime, Bruegel the Elder's genius was admired and praised by the first art historians.
The foremost such art historian was Giorgio Vasari who, in 1568, saw Bruegel as a "second Bosch". In this period, his work was already rarely available to his contemporaries. Vasari himself only knew about his work through etchings published by Hieronymous Cock – another important factor in the dissemination of Bruegel the Elder's oeuvre.
The rare nature of Bruegel's works led to more than one attempt at imitating his signature, something which would later hinder the work of specialists trying to identify the works.
Pieter Balten's reputation was even bigger than Bruegel's at the beginning of his career. In 1551, Balten was commissioned to create the main paintings for an altarpiece while Bruegel only painted the less prestigious outer panels.
However, Balten would later become one of Bruegel's most important followers: in this Village Wedding, we find the same style as the master as well as one of his favourite subject matters.
Balten was not the only one. For the first half of the 17th century, numerous painters would take inspiration from the characteristics which made Bruegel the Elder's oeuvre so popular.
Like Joos de Momper, for example, a landscape painter from Antwerp born in 1564, whose The Tower of Babel follows Bruegel's example, now held in Rotterdam.
It becomes clear when we compare the two compositions that one clearly influenced the other, both in the choice of subject matter and the way it is represented.
Bruegel's Netherlandish Proverbs (1559), held at the Gemäldegalerie of the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, would also become very famous.
This popular and entertaining theme, in which he paints the weaknesses of mankind with humour and a touch of irony, were frequently reproduced, both as paintings and etchings.
Bruegel's influence is unquestionable in the Flemish Proverbs of Sebastian Vrancx, a painter from Antwerp, born in 1573.
Nearly a century later, the influence of his oeuvre can still be seen in the brush strokes of other artists. Almost in an attempt to surpass the master, Vrancx depicts 202 proverbs, all of which are identified, whilst the original "only" contained 120.
Another amusing and highly popular subject at the time were Flemish kermesses, or festivals. Following Bruegel the Elder, representations of such events also boomed.
This example was painted by David Teniers II. Born in Antwerp in 1610 and a painter for the Brussels court, he was no other than the son-in-law of Jan Bruegel the Elder, having taken Bruegel's daughter, Anne, as his first wife.
This ominous and dramatic autumnal landscape, with the figures in the foreground, falls under the traditional representations of the seasons and seasonal tasks painted by Bruegel, in particular the Gloomy Day from his cycle of the seasons.
Close to Jan Brueghel, the baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens also held the oeuvre of Breugel the Elder in great esteem.
Interestingly, it was he who, upon his friend's request, painted the Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter in 1613-15, which would adorn Bruegel the Elder's tomb in the Notre-Dame-de-la-Chapelle Church in Brussels (now held in Berlin).
Upon Rubens' death, the inventory of his personal collection contained no fewer than 12 of "Old Bruegel's" works.
From the second half of the 17th century, Bruegel's popularity starts to wane. The original works were kept safe from prying eyes and the term "second Bosch" cast a shadow over Bruegel's own genius.
The interest afforded to the master slowly faded to complete anonymity in the 18th century. The Age of Enlightenment, which saw the creation of academies in Europe, distanced Bruegel from the models which played a structural role in the training of young artists.
Whilst Bruegel is mentioned in writing, it is only to mention his "drollery" or "burlesque and ridiculous" figures.
It took until the 19th century for the painter to fall back into favour with the public, who gave him a place among the great masters of art history.
"This marked the birth of a highly valuable tradition. […] "Peasant Bruegel" would even contribute to shaping the image of the southern Low Countries. At the time, Flanders and Brabant looked like a plentiful feast with drinks, bountiful food and picturesque villages with a slightly chaotic hustle and bustle. Despite the simplistic nature of this image, it certainly boosted the master's popularity".
(Manfred Sellink, 2007, p. 40)
Napoleon's centralisation was one of the historical events which helped the master be rediscovered as it resulted in Bruegel's works held in Vienna, in the former collections of Emperor Rudolf II, being transported to the Louvre in Paris between 1809 and 1815.
In 1814, Goethe recognised the importance of the Flemish master as a landscape painter. But it was Charles Baudelaire who would describe the extent of his genius from a Romanticism viewpoint.
"Everyone knows the old and very odd productions of Bruegel the Droll […]. That these works display a certain element of system, a deliberate eccentricity, a technique of the bizarre, is beyond doubt. But equally it is certain that this strange talent has a higher origin than a mere artistic wager. These fantastic paintings of Breugel the Droll reveal the full power of hallucination. […] I defy anyone to explain the hellish and droll Capernaum of Bruegel the Droll other than by a sort of special, satanic grace."
(Charles Baudelaire, “Some Foreign Caricaturists”, in Aesthetic Curiosities, 1868)
The rediscovery of Bruegel in the 19th century was not, therefore easy: confusion and amalgamation were commonplace between the father and his two sons. Numerous mistakes were made in attributing the works which only added to the misinterpretation.
But when The Parable of the Blind was bought at a high price by the Louvre during the Leys sale in Antwerp in December 1893, Belgian critics were deeply moved and deplored the painting's transfer.
Many of the Belgian artists of the 19th century admired the Flemish master's oeuvre and even had some of his works in their personal collections.
In 1869, Alfred Stevens, a fashionable painter during the Second Empire in France, went as far as to pay homage to him by putting The Bethlehem Census on the wall at the back of his Studio.
The other genius Belgian artist that Bruegel influenced was none other than the painter James Ensor. Ensor wrote a spirited speech in his honour during a commemorative event in 1924:
"To you, Bruegel the Droll, Bruegel of Marolles, Bruegel of the peasants, of joyous villains, of miserable dogsbodies, of the corpulent and burly, of the pallid and skinny, […] of twisted proverbs, of ironic Babels, of surprising landscapes, of amazingly comical birds, of lavish weddings[…].
Let’s be proud of our Flemish painter, the most beautiful, solid, ornate, scented, honest, civil of painters. Let’s lift our eyes and our glasses to he who created all. […] Creator of modern art, of the modern landscape, he predicted it all: light, atmosphere, mysterious life between beings and things. […]
Let’s lift our glasses higher: To Bruegel, pillar of the world, miracle of Flemish art!"
James Ensor, Mes écrits, p. 126.
It was at the dawn of the 20th century that Bruegel rooted himself once and for all in history.
A great exhibition of Flemish art in Bruges, held in 1902, would re-establish the long overshadowed northern art. Bruegel in particular, who has since become one of the key figures in the history of art: "the last of the Gothic and the first of the Modern".
COORDINATION & TEXT
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.
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.
© 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
© Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
© RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Michel Urtado