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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 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....
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.
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