The Dutch Proverbs (1559) by Pieter Bruegel the ElderGemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Some paintings are about subject matter. Others are about tone, colour and contrast. But there are some unique artworks that elevate art beyond the visual. They are actually more like intellectual puzzles, asking the viewer to think about the meanings displayed in the images.
Sometimes these meanings are hidden or disguised. Often this was for religious or political reasons, where overt messages could have been dangerous to the artist. But it could also just be to highlight the absurdity of life. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in Peter Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs.
This Dutch masterpiece, painted in 1559, is probably one of the best known examples of artwork where viewers can decipher hidden meanings. And its title, Proverbs, gives you a big clue as to what you should be looking for. This oil on canvas painting is said to contain visual representations of more than 100 common proverbs, or sayings, from the time.
The painting features a scene of busy villagers undertaking a range of activities, both commonplace and unusual. Most of these small tableau’s reflect an idiom taken from the Dutch language. Of course, if you don’t speak antiquated Dutch then finding them all might be tricky, but some of them do translate directly and it can still be fun to try and decipher the true meaning. So, let’s take a closer look.
'To have the roof tiled with tarts'
To be very wealthy.
'To sit between two stools'
To be very indecisive.
'To bang your head against a brick wall'
To try and achieve the impossible.
'With an open gate, pigs run to the corn'
Carelessness leads to disaster.
'To keep one's eye on the sail'
To stay alert.
'To not care whose house is on fire as long as one is warm'
To ignore how the consequences of events affect others.
'To hold an eel by the tail'
To try and do something that is very difficult.
'To fall through the basket'
To have your deception uncovered.
'To fish behind the net'
To miss an opportunity.
'To fill the well after the calf has drowned'
To only take action when it is too late.
'To hold a candle to the devil'
To be overly flattering and make friends too easily.
'To marry under a broomstick'
To live together without being married.
'To sit on hot coals'
To be impatient.
'To shave a fool without lather'
To trick somebody.
There are dozens more proverbs hidden in the painting. See if you can find the following: ‘To always gnaw on a single bone’, ‘To kiss the ring of the door’, ‘It’s difficult to swim against the tide’, ‘To put a spoke in someone’s wheel’, ‘One shears sheep, the other pigs’, and ‘To blow in the ear’. And see if you can work out what these sayings might mean.
Want to know more?
If you would like to learn about the life and work of Peter Bruegel, then you can discover more here.