A Grisaille Painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The Three Soldiers (1568) by Pieter Bruegel the ElderThe Frick Collection

This small panel, once in the collection of King Charles I of England, represents three Landsknechte, the German mercenary foot soldiers whose picturesque costumes and swashbuckling airs provided popular images for printmakers in the sixteenth century.

Bruegel may have executed the Frick grisaille as a model for such an engraving, although none is known, or simply as a cabinet piece.

This painting is a grisaille, executed in tones ranging from subdued whites in the highlights to blacks in the background and in the shadows on the figures.

The brownish tones of the ground now show through the thinly painted surface, giving the grisaille a warmer tonality than it originally had.

During Bruegel’s lifetime, these works were described as “painted in black and white,” as the term grisaille was not used until the early seventeenth century, a half-century after the artist’s death.

Only two other grisaille paintings by Bruegel are known— The Death of the Virgin, at Upton House, Warwickshire, and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, in the Courtauld Gallery, London.

Two of the figures in the painting are playing a musical instrument.

The figure on the left holds a snare drum...

... while the figure on the right plays the fife.

The middle figure emerging from the darkness is a standard-bearer.

He raises his left arm and gazes up towards the flag.

Each figure carries a Katzbalger— a short sword used in close combat by mercenaries from Germany.

Here's the second Katzbalger.

The costumes are typical of sixteenth-century Landsknechte, with the possible exception of the fifer’s fur-trimmed hat.

Lacking the lusty realism that characterizes Bruegel’s genre scenes, this work, along with the aforementioned grisailles, perhaps reflects in its attenuated and elegant figures the influence of contemporary Italian painters.

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