Fables in the Landscape: The Art of Bruegel the Elder

Portrait of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1572, Engraving, 203 × 124 mm. From Dominicus Lampsonius, Pictorum aliquot celebrium Germaniae inferioris effigies, published by Hieronymus Cock’s widow Volcxken Diericx, Antwerp, plate 19. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Considered to be the most important exponent of Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painting, Pieter Bruegel, also known as Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525 – 1569) is loved around the world for his detailed paintings of peasant life, panoramic landscapes and Biblical scenes.

Bruegel was born into a peasant family sometime between 1525 and 1530, just after the Reformation. This background and the post-Reformation period in which he lived believed greatly informed his work which embodies a humanizing spirit. His landscapes are perhaps his greatest innovation. Though they are rooted in the seasons, Bruegel did not just paint the idiosyncrasies of the seasons; he also weaved moral messages into them, giving his viewers a broader vision of life presented in vernacular language.

A long time resident of Antwerp, Bruegel died in Brussels on 9 September 1569. His legacy was most directly transmitted through his two painter sons: Pieter the Younger (1564-1638) and Jan (1568-1625). Featured below are two “snow” paintings by Pieter Bruegel, each a clarity of design and coloration, each a nuanced portrayal of the human condition.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow (Winter), 1565, oil on wood, 162 x 117 cm. (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

In Hunters in the Snow, Bruegel offers a bird’s eye view of a hunting scene in the depths of winter. You can almost feel the piercing cold as the hunters and their dogs, along with ice-skating peasants go about their activities.

The painting can be appreciated at different levels. First, there is the wonderful perspective of the scenery. From the left side of the painting, the land slopes down to a expansive middle section teeming with life. Here, we see a person carrying a load of sticks over a bridge, ice-skaters frolicking in the frozen pond, and a bird gliding across a snow valley dotted with bare trees. Bruegel record all these in minute detail that is typical of his work.

Second, we can also appreciate the subtler message of the painting. Amid the crisp white scene, a darker subtext emerges. The hunters are trudging through the snow wearily, heads downcast. Only one man has a catch, and its only a small fox. As if sensing their masters’ disappointment, the dogs, too seem forlorn, a point emphasized by their droopy ears and tails. Altogether, Bruegel uses the white of winter to contrast with the dark reality of an unsuccessful hunt.

Bruegel the Elder, Winter Landscape with Bird Trap, 1565, oil on oak, 37 x 55.5 cm. Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Belgium.

This magnificent winter landscape [1] must be one of the most well-known works of Brueghel the Elder. In a decidedly more charming mood than Hunters in the Snow, Bruegel depicts a motley group of children sleighing, and skaters and ball game players frolicking in a snowy landscape. The bird trap in this painting’s title can be seen at the bottom right; the bird trap is the sloping plank with food beneath and a rope attached to it. Pull the rope, and the board will fall onto the feeding birds. None of the people notice the trap. Herein lies the subtle meaning of the painting: life is precarious: one bad judgement, and we could well fall.

Notes
1. It is estimated that there are no fewer than 127 copies of this painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. One of the two originals (from 1565) is in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels. Not all the copies are by his son, Pieter the Younger; some date from as late as the 18th century.

Further Reading
https://www.pieter-bruegel-the-elder.org/biography.html.

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