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  Pieter Brueghel the Elder

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Pieter Brueghel the Elder
 
 
 
 
Nature as Man's Environment
 
 
 
In order to differentiate more easily between Pieter Bruegel the Elder and his painting sons," the former was later christened "Peasant Bruegel". "Landscape Bruegel" would have been equally fitting, since his depictions of landscapes are at least as original as those that he did of peasants. Today we would probably call him "Eco-Bruegel", after the sober and vivid manner in which he painted landscapes, portraying nature as man's environment.
It was not until Bruegel's century that the history of landscape painting really began. It had played a subordinate role in Christian painting towards the end of the Middle Ages; the subject of importance for mediaeval times was not so much one's visible surroundings as Heaven and Hell, and how one arrived at the one or the other. While landscapes were indeed reproduced in the book illuminations in the possession of the aristocrats, they were intended to show property ownership or profitable ground - woods for hunting, fields for agricultural working. Not until one or two generations before Bruegel did people discover the attractive sight and aesthetic pleasure that a landscape could offer. The first master of this subject is generally acknowledged to be Joachim Patinier (c. 1485-1524).
The Netherlander Patinier is credited, among other things, with the decisive development - if not the invention - of certain techniques in the depiction of landscape. An example of this may be seen in the representation of distance, of spatial depth. While this can be depicted by means of foreshortening, such a technique works better in the case of buildings with straight lines than in the context of natural forms. Patinier achieved the effect of depth by using colours, painting the foreground dark, generally in earth brown, the middle ground green, and the background, where earth and sky flow into each other, light blue, thus proceeding from dark to light. Bruegel usually adopted a similar pattern.
Furthermore, Patinier used an elevated vantage-point to fit a broad area of land into his picture. It is only from above that one's gaze can pass over houses, trees, hills. Bruegel imitated him in this, almost all of his landscapes depicting the view from a mountain or some otherwise undefined height.
Not only painters and their patrons felt the need to chart as big a section of the Earth's surface as possible. For purely practical reasons, sea-captains and merchants with far-reaching trading connections required maps for long-distance routes. Bruegel's friend Abraham Ortelius was among those offering such items; indeed, he became famous for producing the first world atlas to come onto the market.
This atlas included not only regional maps but also a map of the world, which, while of no practical value, was adorned with quotations of Roman philosophers. One of these states that man seems small if he considers "the entire eternity and size of the whole world". Another maintains: "The horse was created to pull and to carry, the bull to plough, the dog to keep watch and to hunt; man, however, was born to embrace the world with his gaze."
Both quotations belong to the body of ideas originating with the Stoa, the Graeco-Roman school of philosophy. The Stoics regarded the universe as a rationally ordered and beautiful structure in which every living thing has its allotted place and even man must fall into line and calmly accept his fate. Bruegel was doubtless familiar with these ideas of a rational universe, and there are indications that something of them or of the Stoic lifestyle found its way - whether consciously or not - into his pictures. Ortelius says of his friend that he "painted much that simply could not be painted. All of the works by our Bruegel always imply more than they depict."

The philosopher's abstract, imaginary cosmos was the artist's visible nature, to which man must adapt and of which he is as much a part as the plants and the animals - as can be seen in The Return of the Herd (1565), for example. Cows, trees and people are all portrayed in the same hues. As observers, we of course know that the drovers have a particular responsibility; ultimately, however, they are of the same matter as the other living beings and must fulfil their predestined task, whether they will or not.


The Return of the Herd
1565

Many of Bruegel's paintings show people not so much as the masters of nature but rather as a part of it: there is hardly any difference here between the coloration of the cattle and that of their drovers. The Return of the Herd is one of a cycle depicting either the seasons or the months, five paintings of which have survived. This picture presumably depicts November.


The Suicide of Saul (1562) can also be interpreted in terms of Stoic thought. King Saul was guilty of arrogance: he did not obey Yahweh, God of the Old Testament; alternatively, in the sense of the Stoics, he offended against the laws of the universe. Accordingly, he had to die. We see on the left of the picture how, threatened by a superior enemy, he has fallen upon his sword. His squire is in the process of following suit. However, the struggle between the two armies is depicted as that between two caterpillar-like armoured entities equipped with prickles. It is a battle not of individuals but of masses. Nature and the cosmos resolve the affair; anyone rising up against them will perish.


The Suicide of Saul
1562

Bruegel has shifted the scene of the battle between the Israelites and the Philistines to an extensive landscape, portraying not the struggle between individual soldiers but that between masses of fused armoured entities equipped with prickles. People like King Saul and his squire, who have both thrown themselves upon their swords, appear small and insignificant against the broad expanse of nature.


The Suicide of Saul (detail)
1562


The Suicide of Saul (detail)
1562


The Three Soldiers
1568

 
 
 
 
Bruegel must have been preoccupied with or even disturbed by the rebellion against Nature, the cosmos, God, the motif of hubris, for he treated it again and again. In addition to Saul, we can find King Nimrod with the uncompleted Tower of Babel, the rebellion of the angels against God and their fall, and also the man who foolishly attempts to defend himself with his sword against triumphant Death. Furthermore, it is presumably anything but by chance that the subject of the sole legendary motif from classical antiquity to be found in his ceuvre, namely the fall of Icarus (Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c. 1558), is precisely hubris.
The legend relates how Daedalus made a pair of wings for himself and his son, Icarus. He used feathers, thread and wax to do this, and he warned his son not to fly too close to the sun. Icarus, in high spirits, did not heed his father's warning; the wax melted, and Icarus fell into the sea. All that can be seen of him in Bruegel's painting are two legs in the water.
Icarus is often venerated as an explorer attempting to push back the boundaries of knowledge. Bruegel sees him differently, rendering him ridiculous with his helplessly thrashing legs. He has painted the man with his plough, concentrating fully on horse and furrow, larger than Icarus. The best-known version of the Greek legend circulating at the time, a free rendering of Ovid, mentions the farmer, the shepherd depicted by Bruegel, and also the angler, relating how they look up at the two flying humans and "are astonished and think to see gods approaching them through the aether." In the picture, it is only the shepherd who is looking upwards; neither he, nor the farmer, nor the angler, do anything about the drowning boy, however, but continue with their tasks. Even the shepherd remains with his flock. They are "stoics": they obey the laws of the cosmos and leave the lawbreaker to his supposedly just fate.
In concentrating on the people, it is easy to forget that they occupy but a fraction of the painting's surface. They are visually enveloped by a bay with a wood, mountains, a harbour in the distance, and the sun setting on the horizon. Bruegel has unfolded an unrealistic variety and an almost immeasurable expanse. He is demonstrating man's insignificance compared to the "size of the whole world" as quoted by Ortelius.
In order to render spatial depth, Bruegel once again places the observer on an elevated point so that he sees the farmer from diagonally above, the shepherd more side-on, and the ship above the latter frontally. While this may not be quite true to perspective, this technical trick of angular displacement heightens the impression of great distance which the painter was evidently seeking to convey.
Bruegel also occupies an important position in the history of landscape painting on account of his ability to convey to the observer the transformation of nature in the course of the seasons. This was no new subject. The religious texts in the illustrated prayer-books of the nobles in the late Middle Ages were often preceded by a calendar with a page for each month. These pages showed the course of the year, mainly by depicting the respective occupations carried out in the month in question. Thus in January, the feudal lords invite their guests to an opulent banquet; in February, the peasant cuts wood; in March, he tills the soil; in April, young aristocrats celebrate their betrothal in the country; in May, they go horse-riding; and so on. These miniatures are characterized by people. In Bruegel's art, it is always Nature itself which renders the season apparent: like the trees and animals, the people represent merely one part of the broad landscapes spread out before the observer.



Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
c. 1558

Wearing wings held together with wax, Icarus approached too close to the sun; the wax melted, and Icarus fell into the sea. Bruegel makes him look ridiculous, depicting merely his thrashing legs. Through the former, the shepherd and the angler, he is promulgating Stoic ideas: one should not rebel against the laws of the cosmos, but should be content to fulfil one's tasks in the appointed place.



Man of War with the Fall of Icarus (detail)



Man of War with the Fall of Icarus (detail)

The engravings for which Bruegel produced drawings were always intended for a large clientele. For this reason, they tended to follow the conventions to a greater extent than was the case with his paintings. Icarus was generally portrayed close to the sun, as here, with his father, Daedalus, at a suitable distance below him.



Warship, with Fall of Icarus
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The engravings for which Bruegel produced drawings were always intended for a large clientele. For this reason, they tended to follow the conventions to a greater extent than was the case with his paintings. Icarus was generally portrayed close to the sun, as here, with his father, Daedalus, at a suitable distance below him.

This is especially evident in the painting The Hunters in the Snow (1565). There are no shadows: the sun has set, or is hidden behind unbroken cloud. Snow covers the ground and small plants, while gigantic, ice-coated mountains loom in the background. The picture is dominated by two "cold" colours, the white of the snow and the pale green of the sky and the ice. Every living thing - people, trees, dogs, birds - is dark. This stands in contradiction to the customary colour associations connected with being alive, and heightens the impression of misery and privation. The hunters are bringing only one fox home with them - yet it is not they who communicate to us that it is wintertime but first and foremost Nature, the colours of the sky, the ice, the snow, by means of which Bruegel has characterized this day.


The Hunters in the Snow
1565

The painting may strike the observer as a natural view of the landscape, but in fact it reveals Bruegel's great artistry in stylization.
The picture is dominated by two "cold" colours, namely the white of the snow and the pale green of the sky and the ice.
People, trees, dogs, birds are all dark or black, thereby contradicting the customary colour associations: winter brings sleep and death.



The Hunters in the Snow (detail)
1565

 
 
 

 
 
 
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