Pieter Brueghel the Elder

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Pieter Brueghel the Elder
Pieter the Droll?

Almost all the 45 or so paintings experts now attribute to Pieter Bruegel the Elder were executed in the 12 years between 1556 and 1568. Bruegel was a good 40 years old when he died; it is impossible to say what else he would have painted, what further development his art would have undergone...
Many of his later pictures reveal his growing interest in single figures. Where we previously saw a multitude of small forms embedded in an expansive landscape, we now encounter individual large-scale figures, to whom the background is subordinated. One such picture is The Parable of the Blind; another is The Peasant and the Birdnester (1568). Bruegel has depicted a boy hanging from a branch while engaged in the attempt to steal the eggs from a bird's-nest, and a peasant pointing to the boy. The painting illustrates a proverb challenging one to take action: "He who knows where the nest is, knows it; he who takes it, has it." It is not the active person, the man of deeds, whom Bruegel has placed in the foreground, however, but the pensive man, perhaps rather unworldly, who, looking upwards into the distance, has not noticed that he is about to fall forwards into the water. Bruegel has painted him three times as large as the birdnester and placed him along the vertical middle axis, thereby giving him so much significance that he dominates the picture. Furthermore, by positioning him almost on the lower border of the picture, he has moved him into a position of direct proximity to the observer. The clumsy body has acquired additional weight through the artist's painting it in a blocklike manner. This huge figure with a curious expression on his face almost seems to be tumbling out of the picture towards the observer.
Yet the proverb of the birdnester will have served Bruegel at most as an incentive; he was primarily preoccupied with something quite different, namely the artistic problem of depicting a human body about to lose its balance. He had already shown considerable interest in the act of falling in The Parable of the Blind , portraying it in six phases seen from side-on. In The Peasant and the Birdnester, he depicts the initial stage of the fall head-on, adding to the forwards movement by means of the arm crooked backwards over the man's shoulder and thus - if we include the man's gaze - combining three directions in one single body: forwards, backwards, upwards. Everything else in the picture is necessarily subordinated to such a dynamic central field. Bruegel has kept the landscape flat; the eye can relax on the thatch-covered roofs of the houses in the background.

The Peasant and the Birdnester

It is not the birdnester whom Bruegel has placed in the foreground but the pensive man, who, his head slightly raised, has not noticed that he is about to fall into the brook. Bruegel will presumably have been interested less in the proverb than in the body of the young man, who is on the point of losing his balance and will fall forwards. In The Parable of the Blind, from the same year, the artist presents the observer with a side-on view of the different stages of falling.
This painting was probably inspired by a proverb distinguishing between active and passive people: ''He who knows where the nest is, knows it; he who takes it, has it." The detail shows the nest robber, the active person; boldly and without a moment's hesitation, he has climbed up the tree.

Other artists, mainly south of the Alps, were also working on the portrayal of complicated movements by this time; they had broken away from the rather static Renaissance standards of beauty and are commonly described as Mannerists. However, their great gestures, their floating, twisted figures, were still beautiful or spiritualized forms. Despite shared interests with Bruegel, the difference between their work and his is unmistakable.
The late works with large-scale figures include The Cripples (1568) and The Misanthrope (1568). An old man in a dark habit, whose purse is being stolen by a ragged figure in a glass globe, feels himself hard done by and deceived. At the bottom are the words: "Since the world is so unfaithful, I am in mourning." Thorns lie in his way; he is about to tread on them. Bruegel leaves the question open as to whether we are looking here at someone pursued by misfortune or at a wealthy man who favours the outward appearance of an unfortunate.
It may well be that the painter's contemporaries laughed amusedly over such a deceiver deceived or over the birdnester and the sky-gazer. At any rate, van Mander comments that Bruegel painted many "humorous scenes", and that this led to his being nicknamed "Pieter the Droll" by a considerable number of people. Van Mander continues: "There are few works by his hand which the observer can look upon and thereby keep a straight face.. ," A straight face in the case of only a few works? Van Mander is presumably referring primarily to the pictures of peasants, for the peasant was fundamentally presented in contemporary literature and on stage as a stupid figure, uneducated, clumsy, quick to resort to violence - in short, a figure causing amusement. Those observers with this cliche, of the peasant in their heads and with no eye for the serious side of Bruegel's portrayals will perhaps indeed have found something "droll" about the dancing, eating, working countryfolk, their tendency to dress, attend to their appearance, and move in a different way to that customary in urban circles.
As well as this one public, prone to laughter, there was another, however, one represented by Bruegel's friend Abraham Ortelius. the famous geographer. Ortelius wrote that Bruegel had "painted much that simply could not be painted. All of the works by our Bruegel always imply more than they depict." In formulating his opinion in this way, Ortelius was presumably referring to Stoic thought as it may be identified in Bruegel's work, the concept of a universe in which each person should accept his predestined place. However, Ortelius equally praises Bruegel for having refrained from refining and prettifying people, expressing himself (translated from the Latin) as follows: 'Those painters who, painting graceful creatures in the prime of life, seek to superimpose on the painted subject some further element of charm or elegance sprung from their free imagination disfigure the entire portrayed creation, are untrue to their model, and thereby deviate to an equal extent from true beauty. Our Bruegel is free from this fault."

The Misanthrope

A ragged figure in a glass globe is cutting the purse strings of an old man wearing a dark habit. Under the picture are the words: "Since the world is so unfaithful, I am in mourning." The question remains open whether it is the world which is deceiving the old man or vice versa. A shepherd is watching over his flock in the background; he is not complaining but is content to accept his fate, as the Stoics recommend.

The Misanthrope

Storm at Sea (1568) is one of Bruegel's last paintings. It is unfinished and, like so many of his works, defies unambiguous interpretation. On the one hand, we see ships threatened by a storm - man not as master of Nature, in other words, but as its victim. On the other hand, the sailors have poured oil onto the water to calm the sea, and have sacrificed a barrel from their cargo to distract the mighty whale. Yet the barrel could be interpreted in a similar way to the nutshells in the picture of the Two Monkeys: in each case, animals - meaning mankind - allow themselves to be distracted by something of little importance, instead of pursuing that which really matters. A comparison of this work with the earlier painting of a View of Naples (c. 1558), recalling Bruegel's journey to Italy, underlines the overpowering manner in which he has depicted the sea and the force of Nature here.

Storm at Sea

One of the vessels has poured oil overboard in order to calm the sea; another has thrown a barrel over the side in hopes of distracting a gigantic whale. Both attempts by the crews to save themselves appear in vain in the light of the waves and clouds: man is powerless compared with the forces of nature.

View of Naples
c. 1558

A comparison of Storm at Sea from 1568 with a commemorative picture of a journey to Italy, painted roughly a decade earlier, clearly reveals the extent to which Bruegel's artistic interests had meanwhile developed. Even if a sea battle is raging before Naples, the extensive landscape and the protective circle of the harbour communicate a sense of order and security.

View of Antwerp from the sea

Bruegel's pictures were forgotten in the centuries following his death; they did not accord with the aesthetic rules, shaped as they were by the admiration of heroes, saints and potentates, by a bourgeois cast of mind or a view of Nature such as transformed it into a romantic vision. It was not until the present century that interest in him was rekindled; nowadays, the rooms devoted to his works in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and the Musees royaux in Brussels are among the principal attractions for all art-lovers.
That this painter and his works should once again have been made accessible to the public stems initially from artistic innovations such as rendered invalid the conventional manner of looking at a picture. The Impressionists transformed faces and landscapes into dots of colour, while the Expressionists and Cubists "deformed" the human form. Startled and ultimately re-educated by contemporary painters, the observer became open once again to Bruegel's clumsy figures with their earthy colours and closeness to Nature, and even to the maimed bodies of The Cripples (1568).
Cripples and blind people were a common sight in the artist's day, found begging along the roadside; accordingly, the fact that Bruegel included them in 1559 among the multitude thronging the market place in his picture The Fight between Carnival and Lent would not have given rise to comment. In 1568, however, the year in which he probably executed his last works, he isolated them, banishing them to a site surrounded by walls, moving them towards the observer and thereby rendering them in close-up. They are in fancy dress; their various items of headwear could represent the different social groups, with the mitre referring to the clergy, the crown to the aristocracy, the fur hat to the bourgeoisie, the paper helmet to the soldiery, and the cap to the peasantry. According to a Netherlands proverb, a lie goes like a cripple on crutches, meaning that everyone, whatever his station in society, is equally hypocritical.
Such an interpretation, while making sense, seems somewhat weak in the face of the gravity exhibited by this picture. It is because of Bruegel's vision that the present-day observer finds it interesting. The artist sees the people not in God's image but as imperfect beings, the dust of the ground from which they were created characterizing them more than the divine breath which was breathed into it. Bruegel is demonstrating even more clearly than usual that the difference between man and animal is by no means as great as one might think. In taking the cripples' legs, he has stripped them of their means of walking upright.
This has nothing to do with resignation; indeed, it seems more of a matter-of-fact observation. Nor is there any sense of sympathy; evidently this was relatively uncommon in the 16th century, there being simply too many beggars in the streets and in front of the churches. And anyway, Bruegel's concern was not so much with the beggars as such, of course, as with beggars as representatives, whether of social groups or of a specific conception of man.
Bruegel's conception of man is more familiar to us than it could ever have been for an 19th-century museum visitor, for example. This is the consequence not only of the artistic innovations during the intervening years but also of the various major wars and ideological conflicts: they have rendered us sceptical towards every attempt to paint a more prettified and refined portrait of man than that to which he is in fact entitled.
Yet there is also something else here. Bruegel saw man as a product of nature, from which he draws his vital energy. We live today in an era in which nature is being progressively destroyed; Bruegel's paintings, especially the large landscapes, remind us of what we are losing. We see him not as Peasant Bruegel but rather as Eco-Bruegel. Such labels are unduly restrictive, of course; nonetheless, they serve to demonstrate what aspects of a great work are of particular relevance at a given time.

The Cripples

Bruegel depicts the cripples in isolation in this late picture. A woman is withdrawing, presumably having brought them food. The cripples appear excited; we cannot detect why. The different headwear could indicate the various social stations: mitre (clergy), fur hat (citizen), cap (peasant), helmet (soldier), crown (aristocrat). "A lie goes like a cripple on crutches," says a Netherlands proverb. This would mean that all of society is hypocritical. It is not this allegory which is of interest to us today, however, but rather Bruegel's view of maimed people.

The Fight between Carnival and Lent (detail)

Cripples were a part of everyday life in villages and towns. Bruegel has incorporated them as if for granted in the great company of churchgoers and men, women and children dressed in carnival costumes.

Carnival Figures

A Cripple in a Cart Drawn by a Peasant

Fastens strid med fastelavn

Draped Man

Seated burgher

Peasant carrying a jar

Two seated figures

Calumny of Apelles