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  Pieter Brueghel the Elder

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Pieter Brueghel the Elder
 
 
 

The Painter and The Connoisseur, c. 1565 is thought to be Bruegel's self-portrait.
 
 
born c. 1525, , probably Breda, duchy of Brabant [now in The Netherlands]
died Sept. 5/9, 1569, Brussels [now in Belgium]

by name Peasant Bruegel, Dutch Pieter Bruegel De Oudere, or Boeren Bruegel, Bruegel also spelled Brueghel, or Breughel the greatest Flemish painter of the 16th century, whose landscapes and vigorous, often witty scenes of peasant life are particularly renowned. Since Bruegel signed and dated many of his works, his artistic evolution can be traced from the early landscapes, in which he shows affinity with the Flemish 16th-century landscape tradition, to his last works, which are Italianate. He exerted a strong influence on painting in the Low Countries, and through his sons Jan and Pieter he became the ancestor of a dynasty of painters that survived into the 18th century.

Life

There is but little information about his life. According to Carel van Mander's Het Schilderboeck (Book of Painters), published in Amsterdam in 1604 (35 years after Bruegel's death), Bruegel was apprenticed to Pieter Coecke van Aelst, a leading Antwerp artist who had located in Brussels. The head of a large workshop, Coecke was a sculptor, architect, and designer of tapestry and stained glass who had traveled in Italy and in Turkey. Although Bruegel's earliest surviving works show no stylistic dependence on Coecke's Italianate art, connections with Coecke's compositions can be detected in later years, particularly after 1563, when Bruegel married Coecke's daughter Mayken. In any case, the apprenticeship with Coecke represented an early contact with a humanistic milieu. Through Coecke Bruegel became linked indirectly to another tradition as well. Coecke's wife, Maria Verhulst Bessemers, was a painter known for her work in watercolour or tempera, a suspension of pigments in egg yolk or a glutinous substance, on linen. The technique was widely practiced in her hometown of Mechelen (Malines) and was later employed by Bruegel. It is also in the works of Mechelen's artists that allegorical and peasant thematic material first appear. These subjects, unusual in Antwerp, were later treated by Bruegel. In 1551 or 1552, Bruegel setoff on the customary northern artist's journey to Italy, probably by way of France. From several extant paintings, drawings, and etchings, it can be deduced that he traveled beyond Naples to Sicily, possibly as far as Palermo, and that in 1553 he lived for some time in Rome, where he worked with a celebrated miniaturist, Giulio Clovio, an artist greatly influenced by Michelangelo and later a patron of the young El Greco. The inventory of Clovio's estate shows that he owned a number of paintings and drawings by Bruegel as well as a miniature done by the two artists in collaboration. It was in Rome, in 1553, that Bruegel produced his earliest signed and dated painting, “Landscape with Christ and the Apostles at the Sea of Tiberias.” The holy figures in this painting were probably done by Maarten de Vos, a painter from Antwerp then working in Italy.

The earliest surviving works, including two drawings with Italian scenery sketched on the southward journey and dated 1552, are landscapes. A number of drawings of Alpine regions, produced between 1553 and 1556, indicate the great impact of the mountain experience on this man from the Low Countries. With the possible exception of a drawingof a mountain valley by Leonardo da Vinci, the landscapes resulting from this journey are almost without parallel in European art for their rendering of the overpowering grandeur of the high mountains. Very few of the drawings were done on the spot, and several were done after Bruegel's return, at an unknown date, to Antwerp. The vast majority are free compositions, combinations of motifs sketched on the journey through the Alps. Some were intended as designs for engravings commissioned by Hieronymus Cock, an engraver and Antwerp's foremost publisher of prints.

Bruegel was to work for Cock until his last years, but, from 1556 on, he concentrated, surprisingly enough, on satirical, didactic, and moralizing subjects, often in the fantastic or grotesque manner of Hieronymus Bosch, imitations of whoseworks were very popular at the time. Other artists were content with a more or less close imitation of Bosch, but Bruegel's inventiveness lifted his designs above mere imitation, and he soon found ways to express his ideas in a much different manner. His early fame rested on prints published by Cock after such designs. But the new subject matter and the interest in the human figure did not lead to the abandonment of landscape. Bruegel, in fact, extended his explorations in this field. Side by side with his mountain compositions, he began to draw the woods of the countryside, turned then to Flemish villages, and, in 1562, totownscapes with the towers and gates of Amsterdam.

The double interest in landscape and in subjects requiring the representation of human figures also informed, often jointly, the paintings that Bruegel produced in increasing number after his return from Italy. All of his paintings, even those in which the landscape appears as the dominant feature, have some narrative content. Conversely, in those that are primarily narrative, the landscape setting often carries part of the meaning. Dated paintings have survived from each year of the period except for 1558 and 1561. Within this decade falls Bruegel's marriage to Mayken Coecke in the Church of Notre-Dame de la Chapelle in Brussels in 1563 and his move to that city, in which Mayken and her mother were living. His residence recently was restored and turned into a Bruegel museum. There is, however, some doubt as to the correctness of the identification.

In Brussels, Bruegel produced his greatest paintings, but only few designs for engravings, for the connection with Hieronymus Cock may have become less close after Bruegel left Antwerp. Another reason for the concentration on painting may have been his growing success in this field. Among his patrons was Cardinal Antione Perrenot de Granvelle, president of the council of state in the Netherlands, in whose palace in Brussels the sculptor Jacques Jonghelinck had a studio. He and Bruegel had traveled in Italy at the same time, and his brother, a rich Antwerp collector, Niclaes, was Bruegel's greatest patron, having by 1566 acquired 16 of his paintings. Another patron was Abraham Ortelius, who in a memorable obituary called Bruegel the most perfect artist of the century. Most of his paintings were done for collectors.

Bruegel died in 1569 and was buried in Notre-Dame de la Chapelle in Brussels.

Artistic evolution and affinities

In addition to a great many drawings and engravings by Bruegel, 45 authenticated paintings from a much larger output now lost have been preserved. Of this number, about a third is concentrated in the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum, reflecting the keen interest of the Habsburg princes in the 16th and 17th centuries in Bruegel's art.

In his earliest surviving works, Bruegel appears as essentially a landscape artist, indebted to, but transcending, the Flemish 16th-century landscape tradition, as well as to Titian and to other Venetian landscape painters. After his return from Italy, he turned to multifigure compositions, representations of crowds of people loosely disposed throughout the picture and usually seen from above. Here, too, antecedents can be found in the art of Hiëronymus Bosch and of other painters closer in time to Bruegel.

In 1564 and 1565, under the spell of Italian art and especially of Raphael, Bruegel reduced the number of figures drastically, the few being larger and placed closely together in a very narrow space. In 1565, however, he turned again to landscape with the celebrated series known as “Labours of the Months.” In the five of these that have survived, he subordinated the figures to the great lines of the landscape. Later on, crowds appear again, disposed in densely concentrated groups.

Bruegel's last works often show a striking affinity with Italian art. The diagonal spatial arrangement of the figures in “Peasant Wedding” recalls Venetian compositions. Though transformed into peasants, the figures in such worksas “Peasant and Bird Nester” (1568) have something of the grandeur of Michelangelo. In the very last works, two trends appear; on the one hand, a combined monumentalization and extreme simplification of figures and, on the other hand,an exploration of the expressive quality of the various moods conveyed by landscape. The former trend is evident in his “Hunters in the Snow” (1565), one of his winter paintings. The latter is seen in the radiant, sunny atmosphere of “The Magpie on the Gallows” and in the threatening and sombre character of “The Storm at Sea,” an unfinished work, probably Bruegel's last painting.

He was no less interested in observing the works of man. Noting every detail withalmost scientific exactness, he rendered ships with great accuracy in several paintings and in a series of engravings. A most faithful picture of contemporary building operations is shown in the two paintings of “The Tower of Babel” (one 1563 [see photograph], the other undated). The Rotterdam “Tower of Babel” illustrates yet another characteristic of Bruegel's art, an obsessive interest in rendering movement. It was a problem with which he constantly experimented. In the Rotterdam painting, movement is imparted to an inanimate object, the tower seeming to be shown in rotation. Even more strikingly, in “The Magpie on the Gallows,” the gallows apparently take part in the peasants' dance shown next to them. The several paintings of peasant dances (see ) are obvious examples, and others, less obvious, are the processional representations in “The Way to Calvary” and in “The Conversion of St. Paul.” The latter work also conveys the sensation of the movement of figures through the constantly changing terrain of mountainous regions. This sensation had appeared first in the early mountain drawings and later, in different form, in “The Flight into Egypt” (1563). Toward the end of his life, Bruegel seems to have become fascinated by the problem of the falling figure. His studies reached their apogee in a rendering of successive stages of falling in “The Parable of the Blind.” The perfect unity of form, content, and expression marks this painting as a high point in European art.

The subject matter of Bruegel's compositions covers an impressively wide range. In addition to the landscapes, his repertoire consists of conventional biblical scenes and parables of Christ, mythological subjects as in “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” (two versions), and the illustrations of proverbial sayings in “The Netherlands Proverbs” and several other paintings. His allegorical compositions are often of a religious character, as the two engraved series of “The Vices” (1556–57) and “The Virtues” (1559–60), but they included profane social satires as well. The scenes from peasant life are well known, but a number of subjects that are not easy to classify include “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent” (1559), “Children's Games” (1560), and “Dulle Griet,” also known as “Mad Meg” (1562).

It has recently been shown how closely many of Bruegel's works mirror the moral and religious ideas of Dirck Coornhert, whose writings on ethics show a rationalistic, commonsense approach. He advocated a Christianity free from the outward ceremonies of the various denominations, Roman Catholic, Calvinist, and Lutheran, which he rejected as irrelevant. In an age of bitter conflicts arising out of religious intolerance, Coornhert pleaded for toleration. Bruegel, of course, castigated human weakness in a more general way, with avarice and greed as the main targets of his criticism that was ingeniously expressed in the engraving “The Battle Between the Money Bags and Strong Boxes.” This would have been in keeping with Coornhert's views as well, which permitted taking part outwardly in the old forms of worship and accepting the patronage of Cardinal Granvelle.

Encyclopaedia Britannica

 
 
 
 
A Brief Life in Dangerous Times

Pieter Bruegel was about forty years old when the Duke of Alba entered Brussels. The painter was married, and had a son. His reputation as an artist was not as widespread across Europe as that of the recently deceased Michelangelo, nor again as that of Titian, by whom every prince sought to have his portrait painted. Many knew of Bruegel, however, and his works had a recognized cash value in his immediate home area, as can be deduced from the inclusion of sixteen Bruegels in the list of possessions which a Netherlands merchant gave as surety.
Bruegel was living in Brussels when Alba led his army into the city in August 1567. The Duke had been sent by Philip II, the Spanish king, to whose empire the Netherlands provinces belonged. The commander's orders were to forcibly convert the Protestants; during the years that followed, he would have several thousand Netherlanders sentenced to death. This extreme harshness resulted first in an uprising, and then in a war which was to last eighty years, ending with the division of the land into Catholic Belgium (as it would later become known) in the south and Protestant Holland in the north.
King Philip of Spain was a staunch Catholic: "I would rather sacrifice the lives of 100,000 people than let up in my persecution of the heretics. "He regarded Catholicism as the state religion; accordingly, heretics also constituted a political threat. In 1566, Netherlands Protestants - in particular Calvinists - had destroyed the religious images in Catholic churches, using spears and axes to pull statues of saints from their pedestals and tear altar paintings to pieces. For them, worshipping material images was nothing less than idolatry. What the Calvinists regarded as a struggle for the true faith amounted to rebellion in Philip's eyes, and he therefore despatched Alba as his commander, a man known - indeed, notorious - for his ruthlessness. 1567, the year in which he entered Brussels, would bring the great turning-point in the history of the Netherlands provinces; and Bruegel was to witness the events from close to.
We possess no clear written indications as to whether the painter supported the Protestant or the Catholic side in this struggle. Nor is it readily apparent what message his pictures convey: we must search for hints. In the year of the "breaking of the images", Bruegel painted The Sermon of St. John the Baptist (1566), of whom the Bible tells us that he had announced the appearance of Christ on earth. Bruegel has portrayed St. John preaching in the woods. We can make out a river, mountains, and a church in the background; some of the many listeners in the foreground are clad in striped garments, characterizing them as coming from the Middle East - yet the scenery and the clothing of the other figures point to a setting in the Netherlands of Bruegel's day.
It was nothing unusual at that time to place biblical events in a contemporary setting, in the painter's own surroundings; occasionally, however, religious motifs were also given political topicality. Such is the case here: non-Catholics were compelled to practise their religion in secret gatherings as long as the authorities forbade them freedom of religion. This particularly affected the socially radical sect of the Anabaptists. Like St. John, who had baptized the adult Christ, they too practised adult baptism, meeting in the open air. A critical contemporary wrote of one such meeting in the woods: "... it was primarily the common folk one saw there, people with an immoral way of life... to be honest, however, one also came across people there who enjoyed good reputations and led blameless lives. One would never have believed that such people would go to these sermons."Bruegel, too, has painted not only the "common folk". The bearded listener at the right-hand edge of the picture resembles the artist himself - a furtive self-portrait? At any rate, he has left a memorial in the form of this picture to the secret religious meetings and their sermons.



The Sermon of St John the Baptist
1566
Oil on wood, 95 x 160,5 cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest
 

Protestant preachers roamed the Netherlands, propagating their new teachings in the open air.
The same was true of the Anabaptists, who based their religious teachings on those of St John the Baptist.
In depicting a contemporary gathering, Bruegel has put the biblical John the Baptist in the place of the preacher.
His left arm is indicating Jesus, who clearly stands out among the crowd through his lightcoloured garment.


The Sermon of St John the Baptist (detail)
1566
Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest



The Sermon of St John the Baptist (detail)
1566
Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest


The Sermon of St John the Baptist (detail)
1566
Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest



The Sermon of St. John the Baptist (detail)
1566

Unlike such painters as Albrecht Durer. Pieter Bruegel produced no self-portraits, being disinclined to glorify his own person. Occasionally, however, one may find a bearded figure occupying an unassuming position at the edge of a picture, a figure who might possibly be the painter himself.



The Sermon of St John the Baptist (detail)
1566
Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest



Kristus uddriver kræmmerne af templet

 
 
 
 
We may suppose that two other paintings also contained sensitive political material. Both of them give particular emphasis to a black figure on horseback. The new ruler in the Netherlands was known as "Black" Alba on account of his clothing and cast of mind. Both paintings depict religious scenes: The Conversion of Saul (1567) and The Massacre of the Innocents at Bethlehem (c. 1566).
Bruegel has shifted the scene of the conversion into the mountains. Soldiers armed with spears are advancing upwards out of a valley; in the distance one can make out the sea. It is possible to distinguish, relatively small but in the middle of the picture, the figure of a rider who has fallen from his horse. According to the biblical account (Acts 9), the Roman officer Saul was on his way to Damascus to arrest Christians there. As he approached the city, a flash of light blazed around him and threw him to the ground. He heard a divine voice, was converted to Christianity, and took the name of Paul from that moment on. The light from heaven and the city are missing from Bruegel's work; instead, the painter has depicted the sea and the mountains. It was from the sea, from the Italian coast, that Alba and his soldiers came, their route thus necessitating a crossing of the Alps. A black figure sitting on a white horse and seen from the rear is placed in such a way that he must surely see the fall of the other rider. One possible interpretation: the painter hopes that Alba, known as a ruthless persecutor of heretics, will be converted on his way to the Netherlands. The painting is dated 1567 - the year after the "breaking of the images", the year in which Alba and his army entered the Netherlands.
The second painting portrays the killing of all the little boys in Bethlehem, Christ's birthplace. Herod, governor of the Roman occupying power, had ordered the massacre of the children because he felt threatened by the unknown "newborn King of the Jews". Once again, Bruegel has set the biblical story in his own time and country. Soldiers are forcing their way into the houses of a snowbound village, tearing the children from the arms of their mothers - wintry stillness on the one hand, murder and manslaughter on the other. A menacing troop of riders in grey armour looks on, headed by an officer in black. Like Alba, he has a long white beard.
A rider with the Habsburg double eagle on his chest is standing a little way away from the troop; the villagers have turned to him, pleading with him. Philip was of the House of Habsburg; his half-sister, Margaret of Parma, formerly Regent of the Netherlands, had been stripped of power by Alba. It is conceivable that the observer is being asked to differentiate between the ruthless commander and the Habsburg Regent.
We do not know whether or to what extent Bruegel was actively involved in the resistance against Spanish Catholic rule. After all, Cardinal Granvelle, one of Philip II's advisors, also purchased works from him. However, the painter maintained a distanced, critical position; that much may be deduced from his circle of acquaintances and the first biography of Bruegel, which appeared in 1604. His biographer, Carel van Mander, tells us that, on his deathbed, Bruegel instructed his wife to burn certain drawings, since their captions "were all too biting and full of scorn..." The painter acted in this way, van Mander adds, "either because he regretted having done them or because he feared that they could have unpleasant consequences for his wife."
Pieter Bruegel the Elder died on 5th September 1569, two years after Alba had entered Brussels and in the year in which the resistance of the Netherlanders turned to open rebellion. In January, according to official records, the Brussels city council had released him from his obligation to have Spanish soldiers billeted on him, "so that he may be enabled to continue his activities and his work in this city. "Were there Spaniards living in his studio? Did he need looking after because of some serious illness? An indication of prolonged sickness is the fact that no dated works survive from the last year of his life.
Van Mander comments with regard to one of Bruegel's last pictures, The Magpie on the Gallows (1568), that "he bequeathed his wife a picture with a magpie on a gallows. He was referring by the magpie to the gossips, whom he would like to see hanged." It could be that gossips had harmed him to such an extent in his private life that he wished them dead. It is also possible, however, that Bruegel was thinking of informers, Alba's system of terror being based upon secret denunciations. The gallows also suggests political associations. The Spanish authorities had ordered in 1566 that "predicants" were to be hanged. "Predicants" were preachers who spread Protestant doctrine, an activity punishable by death. In contrast to death by the sword or by fire, death on the gallows was regarded as dishonourable. This dispensation thus linked it to the Spanish Catholic rulers in a particularly bitter manner.


The Conversion of Saul
1567

A biblical motif with political overtones. The painter has set Saul's conversion to Paul in a mountain landscape. The sea may be seen in the distance.
It was from there, from the Italian coast, that the Spanish troops set off to cross the Alps, their task to drive out the heretics and crush Netherlands
efforts to obtain more freedom.




The Conversion of Saul (detail)
1567

Bruegel has given particular prominence to a black rider seen from the rear, who is observing the fallen Saul.
The painter was presumably hoping that the reputedly terrible "Black" Alba would undergo conversion.



The Slaughter of the Innocents
1565-66
Oil on panel, 111 x 160 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The Bible tells us that King Herod ordered the killing of all newborn boys in Bethlehem. Bruegel has placed the scene in a Netherlands village. A group of armoured horsemen are supervising the slaughter. It was one of the characteristics of Spanish troops that they held their lances in an absolutely upright position. The troop's leader, clad in black and with a long white beard, is presumably intended as a reference to the Duke of Alba.



The Slaughter of the Innocents (detail)
1565-66
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna


The Magpie on the Gallows
1568

 
 
 

 
 
 
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