Peasant or scholar?

Portrait of Pieter Bruegel, in Dominicus Lampsonius, Portraits of Some Famous Artists of the Low Countries (1572/1572) by Johannes Wierix (attributed to)Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium


Pieter Bruegel the Elder is considered to be one of the most important painters of his time. His works were already highly sought after during his own lifetime. His fame continued to grow long after his death in 1569.

However, over the centuries, we have been left with very little information about him. We know virtually nothing about Bruegel, about his life, his artistic, religious or political views, nor about the places he lived or the people around him. Only his works remain – 40 or so paintings, some 60 drawings and around 70 preparatory drawings for etchings.

The mystery surrounding the painter and the complexity of his work have led to numerous myths.

The Census at Bethlehem (1566) by Pieter Bruegel the ElderRoyal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium



The general public's perception of the artist changes frequently over time. Nearly five centuries separate us from Bruegel the Elder. In the early 21st century, many still believe him to be a painter of popular, peasant or village scenes.

Genre scenes are what come to mind most frequently when we think of Bruegel's work, as in this detail from The Census at Bethlehem where the inhabitants of a Brabant village go about their daily life on the night before Christmas.

Kermesse with Theatre and Procession (undated) by Pieter Brueghel II (according to Pieter Bruegel the Elder)Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

While the "Bruegel the Peasant" myth has long since been disproved by historians, it persists in the minds of the general public. The number of Bruegel's works which fit this traditional image of "Bruegel the Peasant" is, however, relatively limited in comparison to the size of the myth.

Several historical reasons explain this lasting myth.
This first is the description published by Bruegel's first biographer, Karel van Mander. In his famous Schilder-Boeck, published in 1604, the writer describes Bruegel as being born "among the peasants".

"Accompanied by Franckert, Bruegel liked to visit the peasants, for weddings or fairs. The two men would dress as peasants and, like the other guests, would take presents and behave like they were part of the family or were guests of the bride or groom. Bruegel entertained himself watching the peasants' morals, their table manners, their dances, their games, their ways of courtship, and other entertaining things that they would indulge in, and that the painter knew how to reproduce, with much sensitivity and humour. »

This description of the painter would greatly influence the view that enthusiasts and art historians would hold of him over the following centuries.

The Census at Bethlehem (1610) by Pieter Brueghel II (according to Pieter Bruegel the Elder)Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

The second key explanation for this myth's long-standing nature is found in the pictorial output of his oldest son, Pieter Brueghel the Younger. He had already reproduced a significant number of his father's paintings, but nearly all of them had peasant life as a dominant theme.

These copies later created considerable confusion in the perception of the Flemish master's work – even more so given that, already in his lifetime, Bruegel the Elder's works were part of private European collections that were relatively inaccessible to the public. The general public could only come to learn about his work through the copies on the market at the time.

Winter Landscape with Skaters and Birds Trap (1565) by Pieter Bruegel the ElderRoyal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

The Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap is one such example. The work was originally painted by Bruegel the Elder and then copied by his son. But the story doesn't stop there! Today there are more than 127 known examples of this landscape spread throughout the world, of which 45 are thought to be painted by Pieter Brueghel the Younger.

These numerous copies which have been changing hands on the market since the end of the 16th century, strongly contribute to creating the myth that Bruegelian art is exclusively dedicated to the rural milieu, a myth which only got stronger over the centuries.

The Harvesters (1565) by Pieter Bruegel the ElderThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Much has been written about this perception of the artist.

Experts are often at odds over one question: can this be interpreted as a satirical view of the peasant world, a distanced description or is it possible to see it as a view influenced by humanism?

While satirical representation of peasant life was a popular genre in the 16th century in Germany and the Netherlands, this idea has now been dismissed as Bruegel does not take a disdainful or mocking stance in his work. Whilst his work does sometimes have hints of irony, it shows above all an intrinsic love for these scenes of peasant life which he paints with pleasure and humour. Like, for example, his famous cycle of the seasons, including The Harvesters, now held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The Painter and The Buyer (c. 1565 - c. 1565) by Pieter BruegelRoyal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium



The Alchemist (1558/1558) by Pieter BruegelRoyal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

The opposite myth, that of an almost scholarly Bruegel, has been formed through recent publications by the current generation of researchers, who present Bruegel as a very erudite painter who expressed his opinions through highly complex work with several possible levels of interpretation.

However, this hypothesis is contradicted by many things. On the one hand, historians have identified spelling mistakes in the captions of his drawings. On the other hand, while he was in fact close to erudite humanist networks, no source places him in the known circles of the time.

It is thus reasonable to think that, while doubtless intelligent and an expert on the traditions and goings on of his time, Bruegel was not what one would commonly call an erudite artist.

The Massacre of the Innocents (unknown - unknown) by Pieter Brueghel II (according to Pieter Bruegel the Elder)Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

Over the last decades, this issue has also been the subject of great debate between specialists. Indeed, Manfred Sellink, author of a recent monograph about Bruegel and expert on his drawings, asked himself "to what extent can we see in Bruegel's work allusions to contemporary political and religious events, hidden to a greater or lesser extent?”

Numerous experts think Bruegel intended to use his work to comment on the events of his time. Whilst this interpretation is supported by the complexity of the Flemish master's work, it must be approached with care as there are no sources to prove this thesis.

Such is the case for his Massacre of the Innocents. Some authors see his soldiers dressed in red as references to the Spanish troops of the Duke of Alba or the soldiers of the regent Margaret of Parma whose objective was to restore calm following the iconoclastic attacks in 1566 and the subsequent heretical revolts.

As Manfred Sellink explains "the turbulent political and religious situation in the Low Countries in the 1560s and, in particular, the merciless response received by those who dared voice rebellious opinions, must have generally speaking encouraged caution in an artisan whose career depending on contacts with the ruling and financial elite, and he was not short of commissions: he certainly was not encouraged to make comment, hidden or not, on the events of the time. It would be surprising to find critical allusions in direct contradiction to the established order in works belonging to painters such as Jonghelink, Noirot and certainly the Cardinal de Granvelle."

This was even more true for prints whose dissemination was closely supervised by the authorities.

The Painter and The Buyer (c. 1565 - c. 1565) by Pieter BruegelRoyal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

Manfred Sellink also mentioned that "if there is still a place where we can find Bruegel's personal point of view on the world in which he lived, it should be in the pieces of work that weren't destined to be disseminated as prints". That's to say, the artist's non-published drawings.

According to Karel van Mander, Bruegel ordered his wife to destroy some of his work upon his death, "in the fear that she would suffer as a consequence". This sentence is often referenced by authors who defend the hypothesis of "Bruegel the critic of his time".

As these drawings no longer exist, it is difficult to decipher the Flemish master's mindset.

The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562) by Pieter Bruegel the ElderRoyal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium


"The large number of interpretations demonstrates how relevant Bruegel is today, in a century which is also multifaceted and contradictory" 

(Ph. and F. Roberts-Jones, 1997)

Bruegel the Elder's international renown and the mystery surrounding his life and career have led to the creation of numerous interpretations over the centuries. These have sometimes reshaped his original intentions. Given the lack of sources to confirm experts’ hypotheses, even the most convincing of interpretations are to be approached with caution. The only proven and indisputable evidence left by Bruegel is, and will always be, his work. It is precisely the fact that he is enshrouded in mystery that makes him one of the most marvellous and intriguing characters in the history of art. 

Credits: Story

Jennifer Beauloye

Joost Vander Auwera

Manfred Sellink, Bruegel : L'oeuvre complet, Peintures, dessins, gravures, Gand, Ludion, 2007.

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
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
© Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Wien

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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