Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Pieter Bruegel was a Flemish painter acclaimed for his innovative contributions to the Flemish art and for leaving a legacy that remained active for over two centuries through his direct descendants. Pieter was particularly famous for introducing genre painting into the Northern Renaissance scene in which his subjects were peasants and common people.

Many scholars would agree that the tradition started by Jan Van Eyck in the early Northern Renaissance ended with Bruegel’s art. It is primarily because the Flemish art tradition was in transition from the abstract characteristics of medieval art into a more realistic one. For example, Bruegel’s works depict figures inspired by what he perceived from nature and painted them true to the characteristics and situations of realism. His works portray believable landscape settings and images of men instead of mythological characters.

Early Life

Pieter Bruegel was born around 1525 in the town of Breda. However, little is known about his childhood years because they were poorly documented. According to his biographer, Karen van Mander, Bruegel first worked as an apprentice for Pieter Coecke van Aelst. He later on moved on to his career by spending his journeyman years in France, Italy and Antwerp.

In 1551, he moved to Antwerp to accept his master position in the city’s established guild for painters. He shortly returned to Italy to attend to his commissioned works, went back to Antwerp and then decided to stay for good in Brussels. Overall, Bruegel’s mature works would have been executed in both Antwerp and Brussels.

Early Success and Marriage

Around 1552 to late 1570, Bruegel had been painting landscapes that he observed from his natural surroundings. He was famous for his picture-perfect panoramas of valleys, open seas and city structures. In every place that he had been to, he presumably sketched them and made it an inspiration for his masterpieces later on such as the famous Hunters in the Snow and Magpie on the Gallows.

By the time that Bruegel got married to his master’s daughter, Maria Coecke van Aelst, in 1563, he was a renowned painter already. He was still based in Antwerp at this time and then transferred to Brussels with his family. He had two children namely Pieter the Younger and Jan Bruegel, both of whom became acclaimed artists at their own right.

Painting Styles and Subjects

Pieter Bruegel was one of the foremost painters to pursue genre painting. He made peasants and nature as his subjects primarily but at some point he also painted religious-themed art works. In most of his genre paintings, he tried to portray the life of peasants, specially portraying how they live during the 15th century Europe.

It is worth mentioning that Northern Europe at that time was somewhat in turmoil due to the advances of the Reformists against the Catholic Church and the plague that was spreading fast across the continent. For example, he painted The Fight between Carnival and Lent as a social protest to what was happening during the Reformation period. He also made Strongboxes Battling Piggybanks and The Ass in the School engravings to express his disappointment with these religious movements.

However, even if this was the case, Bruegel still reflected a positive thought through his paintings, many of which depict regular day-time farming job of the peasants, their meals, village life, dances and celebrations, games, among others that make up a normal daily routine. It is as though Bruegel wanted to picture his rural town in its most positive situation far from the commotion that was taking place at the city that time. Bruegel was an idealistic painter with a skill to depict a normal rural life vividly.

For instance, his iconic Netherlandish Proverbs painting reveals several socioeconomic aspects of the 16th century. It also contained aphorisms that were commonly used back then and the painting Children’s Games portrays how adolescents entertain themselves through various games. Bruegel’s paintings show a greater degree of liveliness in them because they are based on realistic situations and settings, which made him the most outstanding Flemish painter of his time.

Genre Painting: Mature Works

Pieter Bruegel’s art patrons consisted of wealthy scholars, businessmen and connoisseurs. His social circle also included some famous humanists, cartographers and publishers. Therefore, he had been able to provide his family quite a comfortable life despite the political turmoil that they were in.

In 1558, Bruegel worked on some religious works like The Sermon of St. John the Baptist and Conversion of Paul. He had them set up in a Flemish landscape as the background which was a unique approach at that time. And by the turn of the new decade, Bruegel began painting peasants and rural life as his subjects.

In The Peasant Wedding, Bruegel portrayed a wedding ceremony at the reception area where there is a banquet. The colors are vivid as well as the poses of each figure. Aside from painting celebrations, he also painted persons with disabilities like in his work The Blind Leading the Blind. This was quite intriguing for it was an unusual subject – the marginalized individuals – while at the same time it has some religious touch to it for the scene depicted a particular Bible quote from Matthew 15:14. But allegorically speaking, the six visually impaired men in the painting symbolize the recklessness of mankind in attaining worldly desires instead of following the teachings of Christ.

Having said this, it was only Bruegel’s subjects that can be considered unusual because the religious themes and the allegorical meaning of his paintings were typical of Northern Renaissance art.

Under the Patronage of Niclaes Jonghelinck

In 1565, Bruegel began working for Jonghelinck who was a well-to-do patron from Antwerp. He was hired to complete a series of paintings with each of month of the year as the subject, five of which are the only surviving ones today. This series is supposed to be a calendar that on each page for each month, Bruegel had to paint some images.

Each page may depict Flemish social life or landscape as per the typical setting that would have looked like for that specific month. Few examples of paintings from this series included The Harvesters in August and The Hunters in the Snow in December.

The paintings are large in size with measurements of 5 by 5 feet. Apparently, this was a major commission that could guarantee financial stability over the next few years, especially when the 80 Years of War had just began in 1563. So, to avoid getting the attention of the Calvinists that were the ruling state philosophy and religion that time, he focused on doing secular commissions.

Later Years

The last decade of PieterBruegel was still spent on painting. In circa 1560, he must have completed Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, which is now a world-renowned masterpiece located at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium. However, the museum researchers had later found out that what they have retrieved was a copy of the original only.

Bruegel died on September 1469 in Brussels and his remains were buried in Kapellekerk. Fortunately, he had two sons that continued what he started in painting and printmaking. The continuity of his lineage was integral in the constant development of Bruegel’s art and family business. In fact, it lasted until four generations over the course of almost two centuries.

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